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Wiser summary

Dilip Jeste with Scott LaFee

The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good

4.8 (94 ratings)
19 mins
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    Neuroscience can help explain the link between wisdom and aging.

    We all know people we consider wise. It might be your former English teacher, an aunt or an uncle, or even a trusted friend. 

    Whoever the wise people in your life are, you’re probably glad they’re around. After all, wise people are understanding and compassionate. They’re knowledgeable about the ways of the world and the heart – and they understand their own biases and limitations. 

    And very often, they’re also old. Sure, you might know some young people you consider wise; it’s not an impossibility. But from Dumbledore to Yoda, aging and wisdom seem to go hand in hand.

    But why is that? Is it just a fictional stereotype, or is there something deeper at play?

    The key message here is: Neuroscience can help explain the link between wisdom and aging.

    When scientists began to study the science of wisdom, they found that two parts of the brain surfaced again and again in their research: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

    You might have heard of the amygdala already. It’s one of the two little almond-shaped organs set deep within the human brain, and it plays a key role in our experience of emotion.

    The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is large and sits just behind the forehead. It’s responsible for quite a lot of things – but, most important for us, it plays a key role in the development and practice of wisdom. For example, it’s thanks to the prefrontal cortex, or PFC for short, that we humans possess the ability to empathize and be altruistic.

    So how does this all tie in with aging? Well, it just so happens that our amygdala and PFC undergo significant changes as we age – changes with close links to wisdom, optimism, and emotional harmony.

    One of the most important changes is that, as we age, the amygdala becomes less responsive to upsetting stimuli or information. At the same time, however, older people remain just as sensitive to uplifting stimuli, like a photo of a baby smiling – meaning that they experience fewer lows in response to the world, but just as many highs.

    At the same time, as we grow older, much of the brain’s activity shifts from the back of the brain to the front of the brain, toward the PFC – which, as we’ve said, is where much of our compassionate wisdom resides.

    In other words, Yoda might be science fiction – but that doesn't mean the link between his age and his wisdom has no basis in the real world.

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    What is Wiser about?

    Wiser (2020) combines a scientific approach to wisdom with practical tips on how to grow wiser today. Drawing on decades of research and cutting-edge studies, it pairs explanation and advice in its investigation of compassion, aging, decision-making, and more.

    Best quote from Wiser

    There is no wisdom in instability. If youre always angry or consumed by negative emotions, you cannot behave wisely.

    —Dilip Jeste with Scott LaFee
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    Who should read Wiser?

    • Busy twenty-first-century folk hungry for old-fashioned wisdom
    • Amateur scientists interested in discovering more about the brain
    • People who want to get wise before they get old

    About the Author

    Dilip Jeste is a neuropsychiatrist who has spent more than two decades studying the components of wisdom and the aging process. He is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California San Diego and was formerly president of the American Psychiatric Association.

    Scott LaFee is the director of communications and media relations for University of California San Diego Health and Health Sciences. He is a former science writer and editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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