What is wisdom has lately become a topic of much debate. Questions run from: what is wisdom (which I’m not going to try to answer, but this fantastic NY Magazine article does a great job surveying the discussion) all the way up to what produces wisdom—which is the topic on today's table.
Generally, the thinking is that wisdom comes from experience and the rougher the experience, the greater the wisdom. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus, for example, told us “wisdom comes alone through suffering,” and Ecclesiastes agrees: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow: the greater your knowledge, the greater your pain.” Or, in a more modern version, W.B. Yeats pointed out that: “if suffering brings wisdom, I wish to be less wise.” As it turns out, Yeats might have been onto something.
There’s a tremendous amount of new research showing that prolonged stress actually lowers wisdom. “The more overwhelming the stress, the greater it’s magnitude, the less likely people are to learn from the experience,” says Dolores Pushkar, a professor in Concordia's Department of Psychology and member of the Centre for Research in Human Development. "Chronic adversity can destroy wisdom."
Now, Puskar is specifically referring to a batch of studies done after major calamities, wars and genocides, but these finding raise some very interesting questions for our modern society.
We live in a world of excess information. Every second a gargantuan avalanche of data pours in through our senses. To process this deluge, the brain is continuously sifting and sorting information, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. And since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter most of this incoming information encounters is the amygdala.
The amygdala is an ancient, almond-shaped sliver of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear. It’s our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten our survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated the amygdala becomes hyper-vigilant. Then our focus tightens and our fight-or-flight response turns on. Heart-rate speeds up, nerves fire faster, eye dilate for improved vision, the skin cools as blood moves towards our muscles for faster reaction times. Cognitively, our pattern recognition system scours the database, hunting similar situations (to help ID the threat) and potential solutions (to help neutralize the threat). But so potent is this response that once turned on it’s almost impossible to shut off and this is a problem in the modern world.
These days we are saturated with information. We have millions of news outlets competing for our attention. And how do they compete? By vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw—if it bleeds it leads—works because the first stop all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Pick up the Washington Post and compare the number of positive to negative stories. If your experiment goes anything like mine, you’ll find over 90 percent of the articles pessimistic. Quite simply: good news isn’t going to catch our attention. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.
But this has an immediate impact on our perception. As Baylor neuroscientist David Eagleman explains, even under mundane circumstances, attention is a limited resource. “Imagine you’re watching a short film with a single actor cooking an omelet. The camera cuts to a different angle as the actor continues cooking. Surely you would notice if the actor changed into a different person, right? Two-thirds of observers don’t.” This happens because attention is a seriously limited resource, and once we’re focused on one thing, we often don’t notice the next. Of course, any fear response only amplifies the effect. What all of this means is that once the amygdala begins hunting bad news, it’s mostly going to find bad news.
Compounding this, our brain’s early warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the tiger in the bush variety. Things have changed since. Many of today’s dangers are probabilistic—the economy might nosedive, there could be a terrorist attack—and the amygdala can’t tell the difference. Worse, the system is also designed not to shut off until the potential danger has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in an impossible-to-avoid media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share, and you have a brain convinced it’s living in a state of siege—a state that’s especially troubling, as NYU’s Dr. Marc Siegel explains in his book False Alarm, because nothing could be father from the truth:
Statistically, the industrialized world has never been safer. Many of us are living longer and more uneventfully. Nevertheless, we live in worst-case fear scenarios. Over the past century, we Americans have dramatically reduced our risk in virtually every area of life, resulting in life spans 60 percent longer in 2000 than in 1900. Antibiotics have reduced the likelihood of dying from infections…. Public health measures dictate standards for drinkable water and breathable air. Our garbage is removed quickly. We live in temperature-controlled, disease-controlled lives. And yet, we worry more than ever before. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place, and now they are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.
All of this research raises a critical problem: If wisdom doesn’t form under conditions of chronic stress (i.e. low-grade panic) and our brain’s inability to process our current information overload—which leads us to believe we are living in a state-of-siege—then will the long term results actually be a decrease in our wisdom quotient? Even more alarmingly, because there’s no real way to lower the rate of information flow in society, will this problem continue to grow worse with time? Since cities concentrate information flow, does this mean that those of us who live in New York or Los Angeles or any other major metropolis are actually hurting our chances of growing wiser as we get older? This last bit is an important consideration because urbanization rates (which are about 50 percent worldwide) are going to grow to 80 percent by 2030—and one thing is certain, dumb and crowded is a lousy combination for long-term survival.