Intelligence That Transcends the GRE

These are the type of questions that UCSD researchers are trying to answer in a new study that attempts to define the abstraction we call wisdom. According to their findings, wisdom is not limited to a high IQ quotient or moral righteousness, but is a form of advanced cognitive and emotional development based on experience that can be learned and increased with age.

“Not all intelligent people are wise — somebody can be intelligent and yet not wise,” psychiatry and neurosciences professor Dilip Jeste said. “A wise person usually has some spiritual traits — not religious traits — in a sense that a wise person is compassionate, empathic [and] altruistic like a spiritual person. But not all spiritual people are wise though, [because the] person doesn’t have to be highly educated or intelligent to be spiritual. So a wise person is both intelligent and, to some extent, spiritual.”

To scientifically define wisdom — a trait that has traditionally been explored only from philosophical and religious points of view — researchers used the Google search engine to identify experts around the world who have studied wisdom in fields ranging from psychology and sociology to gerontology (the study of aging). They e-mailed these experts, asking them to participate in a survey on the definition of wisdom.

Jeste’s lab used the Delphi method, in which experts corresponded with the researchers on an individual basis to let them voice their thoughts on wisdom anonymously — without dealing with the common problems of group dynamics, like participants influencing other participants’ judgments.

The 30 experts who replied to the e-mail were asked to answer whether a set of 47 distinct personality traits — including altruism and forgiveness — were associated with wisdom, intelligence and spirituality.

The experts were asked to determine if other, more complicated factors — such as insight, recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge and being at peace with one’s eventual death — fell under the category of intelligence, spirituality or wisdom.

Certain traits did not always fall under all three categories. For example, the results of the survey showed that the participants agreed that altruism should fall under the category of wisdom and spirituality, but not intelligence.

“There is often overlap between wisdom, intelligence and spirituality,” Jeste said. “Most of the experts differentiated these three things. Some items were common to intelligence and wisdom, some to spirituality and wisdom, some common to all three, but majority were unique to wisdom.”

Researchers found that wisdom is a uniquely human characteristic defined by six prominent qualities: general knowledge of life, emotional regulation, insight, helpfulness to others, decisiveness and tolerance of different values.

“I believe wisdom is a complex human trait that needs to be studied by neuroscientists, however, there is no single consensus [on the] definition of wisdom,” Jeste said.

In the future, Jeste predicts that — with a better understanding of the science behind wisdom — the human brain will be analyzed for any physiological or genetic elements associated with wisdom.

Readers can contact Regina Ip at [email protected].

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