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Knowing thyself

"It is not intelligence that we need now. It is wisdom." David Attenborough

Human intelligence, over millennia, has produced much that is creative and enlightening but each new development has also revealed darker, more destructive consequences of our innovation. These mainly unintended consequences now threaten life on our planet, while also deepening polarisations that push the urgent need for cooperation further out of reach. We are seeing the need for a different approach - one that sees and cares about the bigger picture affecting all of us.

Wisdom, a protean quality that has been celebrated in human culture since our earliest civilisations, is now being researched to understand how the views and beliefs we hold build the world we live in.

So, what is wisdom, how does it differ from intelligence and, perhaps the most urgent question, how do we cultivate it?   

These are questions that have been gaining attention in the world of psychological science. Back in the 1970s a dissertation by neuropsychologist Vivian Clayton identified 3 characteristics that were commonly understood to embody wisdom: cognition, reflection and compassion. In 2019 an international group of psychological scientists gathered in Toronto for a summit on wisdom, to explore the possibility of a scientific consensus on the psychological characteristics of wisdom. Picking their way through a dizzying array of definitions, they discovered two 'pillars' underpinning the quality of wisdom:

1. The first was a moral grounding, understood as an aspiration to understand and promote the common good; to cooperate with and have compassion for others.

2. The second was meta-cognition, defined as 'aware of being aware' or 'thinking about thinking': the capacity to see a bigger picture, through reflective awareness of one's own thoughts, feelings and impulses - and in relation to others in the wider world.  

As a teacher of secular mindfulness and compassion courses, these findings are of great interest to me, as they align with many aspects of the core intentions and content of these programs. Broadly, compassion courses draw out and cultivate aspects of the first of these pillars, while mindfulness courses major on the second. To be mindful is, in essence, to be aware of being aware.

Has practicing mindfulness and compassion made me a wiser person? The truth is that the clarity of my mental states and consequent actions varies hugely. Sometimes I find myself making wise life-choices or expressing insightful perspectives. At other times I demonstrate childish behaviour when things don't go my way. Overall I believe that my better judgment has grown, at least to some extent. Whatever wise compassion has unfolded, has been accompanied by a kinder acceptance of myself as an imperfect human being, driven by conflicting forces.

I have been fascinated to read about a recent study led by Igor Grossman* which attempted to measure the overall wisdom of individuals. The findings pointed to the fact that the wisdom of an individual typically varies considerably in different situations, with a tendency for people to demonstrate less wisdom, paradoxically, where they are more personally involved. This raises the question of whether there is such a thing as a wholly 'wise person'. Perhaps it is more useful to see an ever-present potential, available for all of us, for responses that express more or less wisdom in any given situation. Indeed, over-emphasis on a search to find a perfectly wise individual, as embodied in some modes of spiritual seeking, may be a red-herring that deflects attention away from one's own potential for greater awareness, wisdom and compassion.

Are there any immediately applicable, practical approaches that recent research has shown to be helpful in the cultivation of wisdom? A further study by Grossman reveals that finding ways of creating a greater sense of distance and perspective on one's own life helps to cultivate our wisdom in both the short and longer term. This can be approached by writing a journal in the third person ("What does s/he think?" rather than "What do I think?") or by imagining oneself looking back on one's situation after a passage of time, for example, one year hence.

From my own experience of myself and others, my impression is that training in mindfulness and compassion can be a practical support in developing greater awareness of a bigger picture. I hope to see more research in this area.

*Igor Grossman is associate professor of psychology and director of the Wisdom and Culture Lab 

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