Who would be wise? 

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

‘Modern definitions of wisdom are based on ancient Greek philosophy. Many of these defined elements of wisdom are also found in eastern philosophies – for example, in the Bhagavad Gita, a distillation of ancient Hindu philosophy that predates the earliest Greek philosophers by hundreds of years and in Chinese philosophies such as Taoism.’

Journal of the American Medical Association, 13 October 2010  Throughout mankind’s history we come across references to wise men, and it is not uncommon even today to have somebody or the other pointed out as a wise person. Intuitively, we feel we know what is meant by the description ‘wise,’ about which there seems to be general agreement. In fact, in an article entitled Wisdom – A Neuroscience Perspective by Dilip V Jeste, MD and James C Harris, MD (of the University of California) in the 13 October 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the authors observe that there are ‘surprising similarities among concepts of wisdom across cultural, geographic, and temporal boundaries.’

This led them to ponder whether, given this widespread presence of the idea from ancient times and across the world, there could be a physical basis for it in the human body. To clarify, everybody assumes that thinking takes place in something called the ‘mind’ which they locate in the brain – in other words, the brain is the ‘physical basis’ for the mind. Never… mind that most people would never have seen what a brain looks like (they would probably be flabbergasted, if not plainly horrified, if they did!), let alone be able to explain any further what is the ‘mind.’ Many of us would remember how we used to joke about this exchange between scientists: What is mind? – it does not matter; What is matter? – never mind!

In my article of last week we took a look at how scientists are trying to find out whether a specific type of meditation practice known as ‘mindfulness meditation’ induces any changes in the brain – in other words, whether there is a ‘physical basis’ for meditation. The answer was in the affirmative, namely that mindfulness meditation does bring about observable changes in the brain which, in addition to enhancing brain capacity, may have potentially beneficial effects for the ageing brain.

Given that meditation is a mental activity, it would seem logical to seek a correlation between meditation and the brain, the seat of the mind as is not only commonly believed, but also being established as such on firmer ground by scientists through innovative techniques.

When it comes to what the authors call ‘social constructs’ such as wisdom, though, for long scientists themselves did not think that they were topics suitable for scientific enquiry. But based on both reasoning from first principles and following upon discoveries about brain-mind correlations, it appears that there is sufficient justification for seeking the physical basis, in the brain, that may underlie the several common elements that go into a definition of wisdom. These elements include: ‘rational decision making based on general knowledge of life; prosocial behaviours involving empathy, compassion, and altruism; emotional stability; insight or self-reflection; decisiveness in the face of uncertainty; and tolerance of divergent value systems.’ It is no longer odd to speak about the ‘neurobiology of wisdom.’

It goes without saying that the authors proceed according to a scientific approach, so that after the ‘definition and elements’ part, they go on to consider:

  • The brain structures which are ‘associated’ with wisdom, as shown up by latest techniques known as ‘functional neuroimaging’ and another method which consists of analysing the consequences of damage to specific parts of the brain on the behavior and other characteristics of the human subject under study;
  • The relation of wisdom to intelligence;
  • The possibilities of ‘measurement’ of wisdom by a combination of methods rather than a single one, which would be limiting;
  • The relation of wisdom to age, and whether it confers any evolutionary benefit from a personal survival point of view;
  • Whether, with the knowledge of what may be termed the ‘pathways’ of wisdom, these can be reinforced or ‘induced’ so as to benefit society at large: it is in the nature of scientific pursuit to start thinking of applications that may be of future use.

Each of these aspects is discussed briefly, but can definitely be elaborated upon, and will no doubt form the subject of further exploration. Some of the discussions would certainly be highly technical and of no immediate interest to the layman. But we can take up the relation between intelligence and wisdom, for example. I am sure that each of us would have an experience that confirms that possessing intelligence does not necessarily mean that one is wise. There are any number of examples of people with extraordinary intelligence who have displayed such base behavior as to make one ask, what is the use of that person being so intelligent? Hitler, for example, and in more recent times several people in the world at the head of their countries must have been very intelligent – to be there in the first place! – but were they wise? The answer is not far to seek.

Since the Bhagavad Gita is mentioned, those who wish to go deeper into the matter may wish to be guided through Chapter 2, Slokas (verses) 55 – 72, to understand more fully what are the characteristics of the human being who has attained the state of Sthita Pragna: one who is ‘established in wisdom.’ Such a study will be fully rewarding both for the individual as well as for those with whom he is led to interact, and by extension to the community and society at large.

It should be clear that what precedes is not exhaustive, it is merely an avant-goût of what awaits the person with a genuine desire to pursue the quest of the knowledge of one’s Self. What is more remarkable is that science is now joining in the endeavour to explore this path through an understanding of the physical processes that, as we said last week, can only confirm the validity of the empirical evidence that the sages of yore have put up for our appreciation and refinement should we consciously decide to travel the road with them. For they did say that, yes, this royal road is not the preserve of anyone, but is the legacy of mankind, and whoever undertakes the journey with devotion and sincerity is bound to be successful.

What a message of hope indeed!

* Published in print edition on 11 February 2011

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