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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

What is Wisdom?


Is wisdom defined by the characteristics of people who have been widely recognized as wise, such as Buddha, Jesus, Adi Sankara and Mahatma Gandhi? Or is wisdom defined by the components of mental functions such as intelligence, expert knowledge, and judgement? In the era of science, everything gets measured. Can wisdom me measured?

Neuroscience had ventured into studying all fields of mental functions. That includes happiness, self, and also, Wisdom.  For example, Meeks and Jeste have proposed a neurobiological model for defining wisdom based on available studies.  (Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview Thomas W. Meeks, MD; Dilip V. Jeste, MD   Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(4):355-365) Since components of wisdom such as cognition, emotional control, judgement, and empathy are involved in the definition of wisdom,  they suggest that wisdom requires an optimal balance between functions of phylogenetically more primitive brain regions (limbic system, in the lower part of the brain) dealing with emotions and newer ones (prefrontal cortex, in the upper part of the brain) dealing with the so-called executive functions.

In an article on Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System: A Critical Review of a Contemporary Operationalization of an Ancient Concept (Human Development 2004;47:257–285), Monika Ardelt defined wisdom as a three-dimensional personality characteristic. The three components include cognitive, reflective, and affective domains and wisdom is an integration of personality characteristics in these three dimensions.

She further points out with research and with examples that the presence of characteristics from these three dimensions is not only necessary but sufficient to consider a person as wise. She also points out that the absence of any one of these components may show the person as one with expert knowledge or thoughtful and self-aware or compassionate, but not necessarily wise.

Dilip V. Jeste and Ipsit V. Vahia studied conceptualization of wisdom in Bhagavat Gita (Psychiatry 71 (3): 197 – 209, 2008) and noted the following components: “Knowledge of life, Emotional Regulation, Control over Desires, Decisiveness, Love of God, Duty and Work, Self–Contentedness, Compassion/Sacrifice, Insight/Humility, and Yoga (Integration of Personality)”. This is similar to the major components of wisdom in the personalities of those considered to be wise, namely a great understanding of life and its vicissitudes, insight and ability to make good judgment under difficult conditions, control over emotions and compassion. A difference that stands out in the eastern philosophy is emphasis on control of desires for worldly things and renunciation of material pleasures.

 Here are some interesting quotes about Wisdom:

Knowledge is proud it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more”  (William Cowper)

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  (TS Eliot  The Rocks)

Lord, give me the courage to change things I can change,

Give me serenity to accept things I cannot change  AND,

Give me the Wisdom to know the difference   (Reinhold Neibhur)

“Some day we will all die, Snoopy” says Charlie Brown. “True, but on all the other days we will not” says Snoopy, the wise philosopher, in one of Charles Schultz cartoons.

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