Introduction to Mind-Wise

Illustration by Steve Burnett

MIND-WISE: Welcome

First, take a deep breath.

Mind-Wise is a blog dedicated to the idea that thinking about wisdom maybe, just maybe, can make us a little wiser in the way we conduct our daily business. And the first step in thinking about wisdom is to slow down and pause long enough to think about it in the first place.

This blog grows out of my work on the book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, published by Knopf in March, 2010. It will, like the book, roam through a number of disciplines, from current brain science to ancient philosophy to psychology to theology to current events and the everyday experiences that test our daily wisdom as we deal with parents, children, friends, colleagues, and our own inner secret agent—the person we want to be, to ourselves and to everyone else who matters in our world. I am as interested in this everyday realm as I am in the formal definitions and explorations of wisdom, because everyday dilemmas remove wisdom from its academic, philosophical pedestal and relocate it in the trenches of real human interaction and decision-making.

Most exercises of this sort, I suppose, should lead off with claims about why you should drop everything to read Mind-Wise. I’m going to begin with caveats and disclaimers. I’m not a scientist; there are countless neurobiologists (and probably a goodly number of science writers) who have a better understanding of the brain than I do. I am not a philosopher; I suspect many casual readers have a better grasp of the main currents of philosophical thought than I can muster here. I am not a psychologist (although I’d submit that you need a good deal of psychological insight if you want to make a living as a journalist or writer). And God knows I’m not a theologian; in my one formal academic exposure to the Bible (okay, it was in high school), I received an F. So why stick around?

Because I’m a middle-aged baby boomer, with an aging parent (along with a deep, abiding grief about the recent loss of my father). Because I’m a parent of two children, and struggle every day with issues from getting them to school and sporting events on time to figuring out how to respect their privacy while teasing out the details of their lives. Because, as a spouse, I face the same challenges as anyone else in a long-term relationship: balancing individual needs with relationship needs, integrating professional goals with personal goals. Because, as a science writer, I’ve followed developments in brain science for many years and thought about them deeply. Because I care a lot about words and how they are put together (I don’t mind riffing, but you may get less shooting from the hip and lip here than your average blog). And because, according to Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, I’m probably much more of a fox than a hedgehog; I know a little bit about a lot of things, and it gives me deep, immoderate pleasure to make interesting and unexpected associations. Put simply, I love to connect dots in a way that produces an unexpected picture.

And speaking of pictures, I am delighted that Steve Burnett has agreed to accompany each blog post with one of his ethereal and uniquely beautiful illustrations.

Having said all that, here are a few general principles that will animate almost every post of Mind-Wise.

First, wisdom is an important thing to think about. Like many grand aspirations, it’s probably beyond the reach of most of us. But as I tell my writing students, you don’t always need to reach Mt. Olympus; sometimes just raising your game a little can make a big difference. I’m convinced people can raise their game when it comes to wisdom, and I hope to provide lots of food for thought to nourish that growth.

Second, there is definitely a role for wisdom in modern life. I know, it sounds like a horse-and-buggy virtue in our hyper-frenetic hybrid age, but in all the aspects of life that really matter to us, I think wisdom can help us. As I was reading background research for the book, I found myself constantly thinking about wisdom; and whenever I confronted a daily dilemma, from refereeing a sibling rivalry to pondering a question about work ethics, I learned to stop and ask myself, “What would be the wise thing to do here?” Try it. Slowing down long enough to ask the question, I believe, ultimately makes a difference in the decisions we reach.

Third, my biggest take-home message from contemporary neuroscience, which will be repeated here many times, is that the brain—like any muscle we more commonly exert—can be strengthened by practice, by habits of thought, by mental discipline. As we learn more about the neural circuitry involved in compassion, judgment, moral reasoning, and patience, for example, we have a unique opportunity to exercise (literally) our minds in a way that might bring us closer to wisdom.

Finally, with a nod to the succinct distillation of philosopher Robert Nozick, wisdom is “an understanding of what is important”—both how that understanding guides our behavior and, conversely, how our behavior enables us to acquire and use that understanding. “Understanding what is important” involves a completely different metric than intelligence, completely different contingencies than rule-based thinking, a different and often idiosyncratic standard for value, dependent on general knowledge as well as personal experience and memory, which is why I think Montaigne (see quote of the week) regarded personal wisdom as sui generis, an amalgam of “other men’s learning” with the lessons of each person’s life journey. When you view it that way, wisdom is above all about preserving the value of the things we hold most dear—family and loved ones, sense of self as well as sense of community, and allegiance to timeless virtues like social justice—even when that preservation sometimes requires wrenching change, and even when things dear to us are often in conflict.

Many of those conflicts register in the brain, so I’ll enjoy passing along or musing over new research as well as revisiting some not-so-new research that’s worth another look through the lens of wisdom.

Most of all, I love the idea of thinking about wisdom, which for me almost always begins with a deep breath. Discount
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  1. Brenda says:

    Thank you. I have just taken a deep breath.

  2. RogerB says:

    Breathing aside, I believe Sandro has been the wisest commentator on your blog thus far. Meanwhile, out here in the Hinterlands, we’re anxiously awaiting WISDOM (in any form), and hope there’s a chance you can come for a talk/reading/signing. BTW, I didn’t know Montaigne wrote an essay “Pendantry”.

    XXOO Roger

    ps: made you look!

  3. Hi – I want to say thank you for an interesting post about a subject I have had an interest in for a while now. I have been lurking and reading the posts avidly so just wanted to express my gratitude for providing me with some very good reading material. I look forward to more, and taking a more active part in the discussions here, whilst picking up some knowledge too!!

  4. I’m so glad I found your site. Its awesome.

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  6. Dong Fultz says:

    Is the belief in science by a non-scientist a matter of faith? Does he have little more than faith in scientists and the idea that they don’t rely on faith? Sure, he may observe and utilise ‘highly technological devices’ such as a computer, but is he still not accepting through faith the principles on which he is told they work?

  7. Thanks for the great post! You have a new fan.

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