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Book Talk

Wiser: A Neuropsychiatrist on Consciously Increasing Wisdom

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Dilip Jeste, MD, offers ideas for increasing wisdom through empathy, compassion, and belief.

Dilip Jeste, MD, is a neuropsychiatrist and director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego.

In his new book with Scott Lafee, Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good, he argues that wisdom can be gained not just through growing older, but through a biologic process we can cultivate at any age.

S&H: Why is it good news that wisdom is “grounded in biology,” as you write in your new book Wiser?

Dilip Jeste, MD: Generally speaking, there is greater weight and greater acceptance when there is empirical evidence to support an idea, finding, or theory. That’s the fundamental value and meaning of science: No claim can be made without objective, measurable data to back it up. And when you have the proof, your findings tend to be more widely and easily accepted. Your arguments are not mere hypotheses or supposition, but data-driven research.

Defining and explaining wisdom grounded in biology and other sciences also provides the ability to construct a broad and deep understanding of what previously had been deemed too ephemeral. A biological basis makes it possible to develop universal measures and screenings that assess wisdom non-subjectively, based upon objective tools like MRIs and other measures of biological function.

Biology also makes science-based interventions possible. The history of psychiatry is replete with examples of mental disorders believed to be unchangeable or untreatable because doctors and scientists had not yet deciphered the disorders’ underlying biology.

Once the biology was understood, it became possible to develop therapies based, at least in part, upon physiological tangibles. Biology also opens up the possibilities of precision medicine, something that isn’t possible if a problem is viewed only in subjective terms and measures.

One caveat: Biology isn’t everything. Wisdom isn’t solely determined by how one’s brain is hard-wired or functions physically. Environment plays an important role too—for example, how you were raised, your socio-economic status, significant events in your life, family, friends, and more.

How does understanding wisdom as having a biological component help us “become wiser faster”?

I think it offers greater motivation. Wisdom is no longer an amorphous aspiration, something that we all presumably seek but have no discernable path to achievement. The fact that wisdom is substantially based on biology means it is potentially malleable. It can be modified and improved, not unlike working out in the gym to build bigger, stronger muscles. That’s a powerful motivator: You can become wiser, faster—and science is increasingly laying out the ways to do it.

Can anyone cultivate wisdom? What gets in the way?

I would not use the word “cultivate.” It suggests starting from zero.

We are all born with some degree and depth of wisdom. It is both innate and acquired through life’s lessons, which none of us can avoid. The goal is to increase our wisdom consciously beyond what we experience and learn directly.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the most obvious one: You have to believe it can be done. If you believe becoming wiser is something beyond active, conscious effort, then it won’t happen. You can’t win a foot race if you don’t attempt to run. It goes to the original challenge of defining wisdom. Once defined, you know what to work on.

It’s important, of course, to stay motivated. If you don’t see how you’re going to get wiser, then you’re not likely to try. Again, here’s where science steps in. Science is all about process and methodology, a series of questions or steps leading to a discovery or finding that, in turn, leads to new questions and steps.

Progress is measurable. Wisdom is measurable. Do the work and you can chart your progress in becoming wiser.

There are other challenges. The pandemic—or even everyday stresses—can make it more difficult to work on becoming wiser. Sometimes it’s hard enough to just get through the day. And there are issues of resources, such as the ability to tap into the expertise of others. That’s not equally possible for everybody, but much about becoming wiser comes from learning and growing from within.

How might the pursuit of wisdom help people reconcile what they hoped for in their lives with what has actually happened?

For me, this question recalls the Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, which reads in part:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

To a great degree, this book is about acquiring wisdom to know the difference and using wisdom to make a difference—in your life and that of others. How do you reconcile personal goals and dreams with reality, with what life dishes out? The short answer is: You do what you can. Bad things happen to all of us. Life is a journey on a bumpy road. We do what we can to improve our lot and our chances for success and happiness.

How does the development of individual wisdom benefit others?

Social advising is a component of wisdom. Wisdom unshared is not wisdom. Wise people make the lives of those they touch better, they are advisors, role models, and inspiration. They offer to others all they know. Wise leaders help create wiser societies for the benefit of all.

You write in your book Wiser that “smart doesn’t equal happy.” What do you mean by this?

Lots of smart people aren’t happy. Just as money can’t buy happiness, neither can high intelligence, at least not by itself. History is fraught with tragic figures, from politicians, poets, and philosophers to celebrities and villains, who were clearly intelligent, but indisputably unhappy and also brought unhappiness to others.

IQ and wisdom are not synonymous. A high IQ score is no guarantee of a high score on a measurement like the San Diego Wisdom Scale. To the degree that it accurately measures intelligence, IQ scores are not modifiable to any significant extent. The IQ score doesn’t change much, and may go down a bit in very old age. But wisdom is modifiable and can increase with experience and appropriate behavioral strategies, and this book is all about showing how.

You list a number of aspects of wisdom. Are there some that are more important than others to develop, or that form the basis for others? Which ones?

Without a doubt, the most powerful components of wisdom are prosocial behaviors, such as empathy and compassion. They are foundational and upon them other components like emotional regulation and positivity rest. Wisdom does not require a full measure of each of its defined components, but it does require the ability to empathize and engage in compassionate behaviors toward your fellow human beings, whether they are your family members, friends, or strangers.

A person lacking in social compassion is also likely to be lacking in other measures of wisdom, such as the ability to self-reflect or control one’s emotions. If you are not empathetic, you are not wise.

How would you suggest readers start to further develop wisdom?

The way to start to develop wisdom further is recognition of the desire to become wiser. It was Shakespeare who said: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” The point is, no one is ever too wise or wise enough. There are many ways to increase wisdom—we outline a lot of the latest thinking in the book—but it all begins with a motivation to become wiser and, thereby, happier.

If you liked this interview with Dr. Dilip Jeste, read "The Wisdom of Disconnection."

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