Wisdom - The Question for Every 64-Year Old

Wisdom = Cognitive Processing + Emotion Management!

In the Straits Times Review Section of May 8, 2007 (two days ago), there was a piece on defining wisdom or at least a sub-heading on it.  It is written by Stephen Hall, author of ”Size Matters: How Height Affects the Health, Happiness and Success of Boys - And the Men They Become“.  Back to the piece, it starts off saying that wisdom does not come with age (although I felt most of the write-up seems to allude to it). 

OK, here are some bites from it - but before that...don’t shoot the messenger!

In 1950, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson identified wisdom as a likely, but not inevitable, by-product of growing older. Wisdom arose during the 8th and final stage of psychosocial development which is “ego integrity over despair”. Erikson did not define wisdom.

Wisdom was historically studied in the realms of philosophy and religion. Only in the last 3 decades has it received attention from social scientists. Psychologists still don’t agree on what wisdom is.

The study of wisdom can be traced back to Vivian Clayton. She observed that her dad, Simon Clayton, and maternal grandmother were different from others. They had an uncanny ability to remain calm in the midst of crises and were emotionally contented, often in the face of adversity. Her dad was humble, aware of his limitations, made good decisions and knew what to respond to and what to ignore. In the war (think it was WW II), while the air-raids were on, he would sit with his dying mother who refused to go down to the shelter because of her health, and after the bombs had rained down around them, she would calmly say “Now we can have a cup of tea!”

Wisdom, in academic literature, is associated with a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament, emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity, an openness to other possibilities, forgiveness, humility, and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences. Ha, ha… bet you think it all sounds like you!

Clayton published several ground-breaking papers in 1982. She was the first to suggest that wisdom could be empirically studied. She identified 3 general aspects of human activity that were central to wisdom – the acquisition of knowledge (cognitive) and the analysis of that information (reflective), filtered thru the emotions (affective). She found that neither were the old always wise, not the young lacking in wisdom. She also found that while intelligence represented a non-social domain of knowledge that might diminish in value over time, wisdom represented a social, interpersonal form about human nature that resisted erosion. (Is this what we call “emotional intelligence” now?)

The Germans identified that there is a “plateau” for wisdom-related performance through much of middle and old age; a separate study found that wisdom begins to diminish at around the age of 75, probably hand-in-hand with cognitive decline. Another study found that wisdom peaks at the age of 64 – is that why they always use that number “64” for difficult questions?

The Berlin Paradigm defined wisdom as “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.” Complementary qualities identified include ‘expert knowledge of both the “facts” of human nature and the “how” of dealing with decisions and dilemmas, an appreciation of one’s historical, cultural and biological circumstances over one’s lifespan, an understanding of a “relativism” of values and priorities and acknowledgement at the level of thought and action of uncertainty.’

OK, it sounds quite “cheem” (deep and complex) as the Cantonese would say, but here’s an example they gave. “A 15-year old wants to get married right away. What should one/she consider and do?” A wise person would say that on the surface it seems like an easy problem. On average, marriage for a girl of 15 is not a good thing but there are exceptions. Perhaps, special life circumstances may be involved eg. terminal illness, or maybe she just lost her parents, or the girl may live in another culture or period, or been raised in a different value system from ours, and that we should also think about ways to talk to her and consider her emotional state.

So no one really knows for sure what wisdom is but it has been closely linked to emotional and cognitive traits such as resilience, positivity, expert knowledge systems, cognitive processing and especially the regulation of emotion. These traits closely overlap with qualities that have been consistently identified by social scientists as crucial to wisdom.

Skipping along – Laura Cartensen of Stanford University believe that older people have a better feel for keeping their emotions in balance. They focus less on the negative, sometimes unconsciously, and have better control over their emotions and she calls this “socioemotional selectivity”. It is not a case of age per se but of time horizons. “When your time perspective shortens, as it does when you come closer to the end of things, you tend to focus on emotionally meaningful goals. When the time horizon is long, you focus on knowledge acquisition.” Another study found that older adults who regulated their emotion well (average age was 64 again) showed different brain pattern activity. They use their pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that has “executive control” over other brain functions to control activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotional content. The good news is that such regulation can apparently be implicitly trained…so there is hope for all of us after all!

So, if you want wisdom after acquiring all that knowledge in your lifetime, control your emotions!

With all due respect, only people who are 60 years and above are qualified to comment on this post.

3 Comments so far

Matt Moore

So I think a bit part of wisdom comes from understanding where you fit in the world. And realising simultaneously how unimportant (to the world) & important (to those around you) that is. I agree with the part about emotional regulation - wise people exercise some choice over what they care about & how they display that care.

I have met a few people I class as truly wise (I am not one of them - yet). However we can all exercise our judgement & I think we all have moments of wisdom.

N.B. My doctor tells me I have the body of a 60 year old - does that count?

Posted on May 11, 2007 at 01:07 PM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

First - yes it certainly counts, since you had it on when you contributed the comment. Second - I am not getting excited about receiving a comment. It’s part of my emotion management training.

For me, the idea of bounded time horizons struck a note. I realise that the people whom I consider as wise are not very caught up with the trivia of the day but the well-being of others and of the world in general. The horizon is short but the vision is wide for wise people, and not vice-versa as is normally the case with most of us.

I’m glad, for the sake of KM, that cognitive processing still figures in the wisdom equation though and yet for the sake of KM, maybe we should explore the other rooms in the “palace” of wisdom for more informed understanding.

Posted on May 11, 2007 at 11:42 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Dave Snowden has also just blogged on wisdom as a cognitive phenomenon, citing Walter Freeman’s book, Societies of Brains. http://www.cognitive-edge.com/2007/05/wisdom_age_supporting_the_illi_1.php

Posted on June 01, 2007 at 06:34 PM | Comment permalink

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