Matthew Brensilver, PhD

Mindfulness and the Scientific Study of Wisdom

As the scope of science expands, concepts that were previously confined to the humanities are receiving scientific attention. One recent example of this trend is the scientific exploration of wisdom. Traditionally, discussions of wisdom have been confined to disciplines such as philosophy. Philosophy is, after all, literally the ‘love of wisdom.’

PhilosophyA few years ago, two psychiatrists from University of California San Diego published an article in the Archives of General Psychiatry titled, “Neurobiology of Wisdom.” They suggest that “wisdom is a unique psychological construct, not just a collection of desirable traits with a convenient unifying label.” The authors defined wisdom as six key components and discuss the neurobiological characteristics underlying each.

What is striking how these six components of wisdom dovetail with outcomes relevant to mindfulness practice. Here are the six:

1. Prosocial attitudes and behaviors
2. Emotional homeostasis
3. Self-understanding
4. Value tolerance
5. Acknowledgment and dealing effectively with uncertainty and ambiguity
6. Social decision-making

Let’s briefly consider how mindfulness practice may enhance each facet of wisdom.

Mindfulness is both defined by prosocial values and aims to foster prosocial attitudes and behaviors. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, heartfulness is woven into the fabric of mindfulness. Kindness is Classroom youthboth a means and an end of mindfulness practice. We cultivate kindness towards ourselves and our experience. Without some sense of gentleness, it is very difficult to attend to the present moment.  Attending to our experience in this way has been linked experimentally to more compassionate and prosocial behavior towards others.

A wide range of research suggests that mindfulness enhances emotional homeostasis. Mindfulness attenuates negative emotion and enhances positive emotion. In the Mindful Schools course, Difficult Emotions, we elaborate on the mechanisms by which mindfulness may enhance emotional stability.

Self-understanding also represents a core component of mindfulness. In an important sense, mindfulness asks a very simple question: what is it like to be human? To begin to answer such a question, we direct our Teachingattention to the flow of conscious sensory experience. Our life becomes a laboratory and we learn through the practice of directing our attention. Recently, Michael Posner and other leading neuroscientists hypothesized that mindfulness meditation enhances self-regulation through an increase in self-awareness.

Value tolerance connects directly with the non-judgmental quality of attention that is emphasized in mindfulness definitions. We’re learning to hold all of our views and opinions more lightly. We’re learning to detect when we become emotionally fixated on a particular opinion – and we’re learning to let go. Importantly, mindfulness practice familiarizes us with our own habits, emotional patterns and attitudes. In the course of the familiarization, we doubtless encounter numerous qualities that ignite our own judgment of ourselves. The mindfulness instructions ask us not to disown any aspect of our experience. In the process of meeting our own foibles and weaknesses with kindness, tolerance for others is enhanced.

Tolerance of uncertainty is a hallmark of wisdom and also an outcome of mindfulness practice. In the instructions for attending to experience in the present moment, we’re asked to let go of projections about about the future. We are asked to let go of the urgent need to understand experience and to situate experience within a larger narrative of what is known. Instead, we make simple contact with sensory experience, and relinquish the compulsion to make meaning out of experience. Previous research has documented an inverse relationship between mindfulness and intolerance of uncertainty. It seems that the less mindfulness, the harder it is tolerate uncertainty.

The sixth facet of wisdom is the skillful navigation of social decision-making. Meeks and Jeste highlight the importance of social cognition in making effective social decisions. Although the role of mindfulness in social cognition – for example, understanding the internal states of others – is just beginning, preliminary data is promising. Van Doesum and colleagues recently conducted a series of studies and concluded: “Much of human behavior is intrinsically social, but past theorizing and research has tended to focus on either the skill or the will to behave in a prosocial manner or not. Our integrative thesis, however, implies that for prosocial navigation to be truly effective, social mindfulness is crucial, which means applying both skill and will.” Subsequent studies have found evidence that even a very brief mindfulness exercise – five minutes – enhanced both empathic responding and insight into the emotional states of others.

The foregoing highlights some of the ways that mindfulness may enhance different aspects of wisdom. Although very preliminary, it is intriguing that several brain regions implicated in wisdom appear to be impacted by meditation practice, including the lateral prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate and striatal regions.

Clearly, much interesting research must follow to examine these ideas. We do however, wish to risk a hypothesis: mindfulness practice cultivates wisdom, and this wisdom helps navigate the world harmoniously.


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