“No man was ever wise by chance.” – Seneca

One of my favourite websites to visit is the excellent Nautilus.us, an online science magazine. I pretty much guarantee you will learn something new every time you visit. Each month it focuses on a different topic, with a new ‘chapter’ posted on that topic every Thursday, usually comprising in-depth essays, reports and videos in a range of styles and from multiple perspectives.

This month, the topic under consideration was aging, and one specific article – The Wisdom of The Aging Brain caught my attention in particular.

The article discusses how the ‘mechanics of the mind’ peak at around age 25 to 30, and then decline steadily as we age and the activity in certain areas of our brain diminishes. In essence, the aging brain is said to get slower and our capacity and ability to carry out mental operations and executive functions decreases. Nevertheless, the article suggests that brain activity also shifts to increase wisdom as we age; in effect, meaning we develop the capacity to become ‘wiser’ as we get older.

My first thought when reading this was, well, how do you define wisdom? I think we all have an inherent view of what it is to be ‘wise’, and would all be able to provide an example of someone we would define as such – Gandalf in The Lord of The Rings immediately sprang to mind for me!

Closer to home, we usually consider our elders as the ‘wise ones’, probably because they have been around the longest and have more miles on the clock in terms of life experience. The article itself provides a few different insights into what wisdom is.

I found Aristotle’s concept of phronesis of particular interest, especially as it specifically highlights wisdom as having a practical element – as educators, we are all practitioners after all.

Aritotle Wisdom
Aristotle’s definition of wisdom

Similarly, Vivian Clayton, a neuropsychologist cited in the article, defines wisdom as:

“…judicious behavior, often involving social situations—behavior born of knowledge, imbued with thoughtfulness, reflection, and compassion.”

Again, the practical nature of wisdom jumped out at me here – it is something you develop and ‘do’, not just ‘have’. Furthermore, two German psychologists cited in the article – Paul Baltes and Ursula Staudinger, refer to wisdom as:

“…expertise involving deep insight and sound judgment about the essence of the human condition and the ways and means of planning, managing, and understanding a good life.”

In some respects, wisdom sounds and feels a bit like ‘Professional Judgement and Decision Making’ (PJDM) to me – see Collins & Collins (2016) for a useful overview – I have referred to PJDM in a previous post as being an important skill or ability for educators to have and develop.

But perhaps most interestingly in my view (indeed, it was the main inspiration for this post), towards the end of the article, Dilip Jeste, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, identifies six components of wisdom based on his team’s extensive research:

  1. having pragmatic knowledge of life;
  2. emotion regulation;
  3. pro-social behavior, which would entail compassion, altruism, and empathy;
  4. knowing one’s strengths and limitations;
  5. decisiveness;
  6. and finally, acceptance of uncertainty.

This list struck me as a pretty useful (if not essential) list of qualities to aspire to as an educator in any field!

Thought provokers and points for reflection:

  • Based on Jeste’s list, would you say you are ‘wise’? Who is the wisest person you know?
  • Perhaps rank the 6 components in order of strongest to weakest for where you feel you currently are. Which component/s do you need to develop most? How will you go about doing this?
  • Effective reflection appears to be a key facet of wisdom, cf. What is Critical Reflection? (PDF)



4 thoughts on “Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?

  1. The component that resonates most with me is the acceptance of uncertainty. I have a strong belief that the human search for certainty can be paralysing; there are many ‘right’ paths and decisions and constantly searching for reassurance that we are doing the right thing, making the right decision can be debilitating and create barriers to fulfilment.

    Liked by 1 person

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