Can wisdom be measured?

Greek philosopher Socrates is depicted drinking from a cup of hemlock

First aired on Tapestry (26/2/12)

We know that wisdom is acquired over a long period of time and in part due to challenging, painful experiences. But what characteristics do you need to be wise? Is the Dalai Lama wiser than Socrates? Can wisdom be measured?

A little while ago, science writer Stephen Hall would have said "no, you can't." And when his editor at the New York Times Magazine suggested an article looking at the emerging field of measuring wisdom, he scoffed at the idea.

"The reason I found it contemptible and laughable is the idea of taking such a malleable concept like wisdom and trying to pin it down like a butterfly with a pin," Hall said on CBC's Tapestry recently.

"We've spent 2,000 years arguing and disagreeing about what the actual definition of wisdom is, so the idea that you could actually do scientific research on it just struck me as highly improbable."

However, after poring through the latest psychological and neurological research, Hall started changing his tune. He studied the work of German-American developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who theorized that wisdom is attained by elderly people able to achieve integrity and clarity as they reach the end of their lives. Hall soon found that there are universal characteristics associated with wisdom.

"Among the recurrent things that came up, regardless of if you were studying old people in Berlin or old people in California, for example, was this idea of emotion regulation. That is, being able to not only respond to challenge in an even-handed fashion, but also rebounding from adversity because we all encounter adversity and we all get set back by it."

Other important qualities seen in wise people include compassion, patience, altruism and a sense of moral or social justice. Hall gathered these findings into a new book: Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience.

Find out more about the science of wisdom in the audio clip below.

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Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience

by Stephen S. Hall

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From the publisher:

"We all recognize wisdom, but defining it is more elusive. In this fascinating journey from philosophy to science, Stephen S. Hall gives us a penetrating history of wisdom, from its sudden emergence in the fifth century B.C. to its modern manifestations in education, politics, and the workplace. Hall's bracing exploration of the science of wisdom allows us to see this ancient virtue with fresh eyes, yet also makes clear that despite modern science's most powerful efforts, wisdom continues to elude easy understanding."

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.