Wisdom is not passive
Following my talk at Seattle’s Town Hall the other night (great crowd, more than 200 people), a gentleman from the audience posed a provocative question. My emphasis on qualities like compassion and humility, he suggested, implied a kind of passivity to wisdom. The qualities he most associated with wisdom, he continued, were vision, imagination, and action.
It’s a good question, and I realize it offers a good opportunity to elaborate a little bit on the action component of wisdom—not as a fuzzy and vague exhortation to “act wisely,” but rather as a consideration of neural properties that motivate action and create visionary strategies.
Both Buddhism (as explained to me by Matthieu Ricard, a French-born Buddhist monk) and neuroscience (as explained to me by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin) see compassion not simply as a perceptual act of understanding and feeling another person’s distress; they see action arising out of that understanding as an intrinsic part of compassion itself. Indeed, Davidson has been working out a tentative circuitry that links compassion to action.
As I describe in Wisdom, Davidson and his colleagues have been conducting brain experiments on Buddhist monks for nearly a decade, teasing out a circuitry of activity associated with compassion meditation. The emerging circuitry is still somewhat speculative, but involves three specific subcomponents of compassion that produce activity in three distinct areas of the brain.
The first module involves what Davidson calls “perspective taking”—adopting the perspective or point of view of another person. This perceptual skill seems associated with heightened activity in a brain area known as the temporal-parietal junction. The second component is a somatic “feeling” (or, if you will, “embodiment”) of another person’s suffering; this emotional component of the response occurs primarily in the insula, a region deep in the brain that seems especially attuned to monitoring emotional weather. And the third component has to do with motivation, what Davidson calls “propelling into action.” This “translation-into-action” aspect of compassion triggers heightened activity in parts of the brain that are known to integrate motivation and action, especially the basal ganglia.
So at least among expert practitioners of meditation, compassion is not merely a passive act of feeling for another person, but part of a more elaborate circuit that connects this emotional feeling to a motivation to action.
There are other examples of neurological “wisdom in action.” Jonathan Cohen of Princeton University wrote a wonderful essay several years ago called “The Vulcanization of the Human Brain” (I assign it to my Columbia journalism students to read every year, so that they’ll be aware of how forward-thinking public policy, for example, is dependent upon specific brain regions and specific cognitive strategies).
Cohen shrewdly points out that forward-looking, future-attentive plans and programs—everything from inventing Social Security as a financial protection for retirees to the training of doctors to the creation of Antabuse for alcoholics—are essentially the result of activity in the prefrontal cortex. These are cognitive strategies designed to counteract and overcome the short-term impulses of the emotional brain, which can steer us away from saving money or, in the case of doctors, leave us feeling so emotionally repulsed (reasonably!) by injury and pain that we are unable to use our medical expertise to treat another person. As Cohen notes, “Those measures are clearly designed to protect us against ourselves,” and the conception and design of training programs to overcome our natural aversion to blood and gore (in the case of doctors and soldiers) certainly involve the prefrontal cortex.
If that isn’t visionary, I don’t know what is. Indeed, this kind of long-term planning produces what might be thought of as a kind of institutional wisdom.
As I pointed out in Seattle, vision and imagination are crucial components to wisdom in action. But it’s also important to remember that vision and imagination arise, at least in part, out of the knowledge we bring to a given situation, and that qualities like compassion and humility materially enhance our knowledge-gathering capacity. Compassion helps us understand another person’s perspective; humility prevents us from thinking we know everything and thus makes us open to the acquisition of new knowledge.
I can see how my Town Hall interlocutor thought of those as passive qualities, but I don’t. And I concluded my answer to him by mentioning the paradoxical example of Gandhi: clearly a deeply humble person, but just as clearly someone who possessed the heart of a lion in opposing social injustice. Anything but passive.