Does Joining Your Head and Your Heart Create Wisdom?

How emotional and cognitive capacities affect your judgment and perspective

Posted Apr 29, 2016

The findings of this new study should be a no-brainer, of course: Our cognitive, logical, linear thought processes must be joined with our capacity for perspective and understanding the larger context of a problem. That blend is what generates wisdom. This study finds an interesting dimension of the reality of that “oneness” of our entire being: the variability of the heart rate.

The full research is described in this summary from the University of Waterloo. It found that heart rate variation and your thinking process work together to enable wise reasoning about complex social issues. The study by Waterloo and the Australian Catholic University was published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The authors point out that their study breaks new ground in wisdom research because it identifies the conditions under which psychophysiology impacts wise judgment. “Our research shows that wise reasoning is not exclusively a function of the mind and cognitive ability,” says the lead author, Igor Grossmann. “We found that people who have greater heart rate variability and who are able to think about social problems from a distanced viewpoint demonstrate a greater capacity for wise reasoning.”

The study extends previous work on the cognitive underpinnings of wise judgment to include consideration how the heart’s functioning impacts the mind. It points outthat a growing consensus among philosophers and cognitive scientists defines wise judgment to include the ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge; to be aware of the varied contexts of life and how they may unfold over time. Moreover, to acknowledge others’ points of view and to seek reconciliation of opposing viewpoints.

According to the authors, this new study is the first to show that the physiology of the heart, specifically the variability of heart rate during low physical activity, is related to less biased, wiser judgment. Human heart rate tends to fluctuate, even during steady-state conditions, such as while a person is sitting.

The researchers found that people with more varied heart rates were able to reason in a wiser, less biased fashion about societal problems when they were instructed to reflect on a social issue from a third-person perspective. Interestingly, though, when the study’s participants were instructed to reason about the issue from a first-person perspective, no relationship between heart rate and wiser judgment emerged.

“We already knew that people with greater variation in their heart rate show superior performance in the brain’s executive functioning such as working memory,” says Grossmann. “However, that does not necessarily mean these people are wiser - in fact, some people may use their cognitive skills to make unwise decisions. To channel their cognitive abilities for wiser judgment, people with greater heart rate variability first need to overcome their egocentric viewpoints.”

That last point is essential, in my view, to expanding our innate capacities for understanding and seeing situations from a broadened, inclusive perspective. That is, from outside of looking at the world through just our own lens. Expanding beyond our personal vantage point builds the capacity for wise judgment.

Center for Progressive Development

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© 2016 Douglas LaBier