Wisdom comes with age? Not true
By Stephen S. Hall
May 08, 2007
The Straits Times
IN 1950, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, in a famous treatise on the phases of life development, identified wisdom as a likely, but not inevitable, by-product of growing older.
Wisdom arose, he suggested, during the eighth and final stage of psychosocial development, which he described as 'ego integrity versus despair'. If an individual had achieved enough 'ego integrity' over the course of a lifetime, then the imminent approach of infirmity and death would be accompanied by the virtue of wisdom. Unfortunately for researchers who followed, Erikson did not bother to define wisdom.
Wisdom has historically been studied in the realms of philosophy and religion. It is only in the last three decades that wisdom has received attention from social scientists. Erikson's observations left the door open for the formal study of wisdom, and a few brave psychologists rushed in where others feared to tread.
In some respects, they have not moved far beyond the very first question about wisdom: What is it? Thirty years after embarking on the empirical study of wisdom, psychologists still don't agree on an answer. But it is also true that the journey in many ways may be as enlightening as the destination.
Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-
eyed view of human nature and the human predicament, emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity, an openness to other possibilities, forgiveness, humility, and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.
The formal study of wisdom as a modern academic pursuit can legitimately trace its roots back to the 1950s, when an observant young girl named Vivian Clayton became fascinated by qualities she attributed to her father, a furrier named Simon Clayton, and her maternal grandmother.
There was something that distinguished them from everyone else she knew. Despite limited education, they possessed an uncanny ability to remain calm in the midst of crises, made good decisions and conveyed an almost palpable sense of emotional contentment, often in the face of considerable adversity or uncertainty.
'My father was 41 when I was born,' she said recently. 'By far, he was the oldest pa-
rent among all my friends, almost the age of my friends' grandparents. He had emigrated from England but had lived through World War II there and experienced the Blitz and had to care for his dying mother, who was so sick that she refused to go down into the shelters during air raids in London.
'She lived in the East End, where the docks were, and they were always getting bombed. So he would sit with her while the bombs were falling, and when it was over, she would say, 'Now we can have a cup of tea!'
'He was a very humble man, and very aware of his limitations, but he always seemed to be able to weigh things and then make decisions that were right for the family. He knew what to respond to quickly, and what you had to reflect on.'
Clayton recalled pondering this as a graduate student at the University of Southern California, working with gerontological psychologist James Birren, one of the leaders of an effort to investigate positive aspects of ageing.
BETWEEN 1976, when she finished her dissertation, and 1982, Clayton published several groundbreaking papers that are now generally acknowledged as the first to suggest that researchers could study wisdom empirically. She identified three general aspects of human activity that were central to wisdom - the acquisition of knowledge (cognitive) and the analysis of that information (reflective) filtered through the emotions (affective). Then she assembled a battery of existing psychological tests to measure it.
Clayton laid several important markers on the field at its inception. She realised that 'neither were the old always wise, nor the young lacking in wisdom'. She also argued that while intelligence represented a non-social domain of knowledge that might diminish in value over the course of a lifetime, wisdom represented a social, interpersonal form of knowledge about human nature that resisted erosion and might increase with age.
One of the people who grasped her work's significance immediately was Paul Baltes, a legendary psychologist then at Pennsylvania State University. Baltes helped pioneer life-span developmental theory, which argues that in order to understand, say, a 60-year-old person, you need to take into account the individual's biology, psychology and sociological context at various stages of life, as well as the cultural and historical era in which he or she lived.
Baltes closely monitored the initial wisdom studies, Clayton recalled, and regularly peppered her with questions about her progress.
The working definition of wisdom next acquired a German accent. The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, as it came to be called, was built in part on research using hypothetical vignettes to discern wise and unwise responses to life dilemmas.
'A 15-year-old girl wants to get married right away,' one vignette suggested. 'What should one/she consider and do?'
A wise person, according to the Berlin group, would say something like: 'Well, on the surface, this seems like an easy problem. On average, marriage for 15-year-old girls is not a good thing. But there are situations where the average case does not fit. Perhaps in this instance, special life circumstances are involved, such as, the girl has a terminal illness. Or the girl has just lost her parents. And also this girl may live in another culture or historical period. Perhaps she was raised with a value system different from ours. In addition, one has to think about adequate ways of talking with the girl and to consider her emotional state.'
That reply may seem tentative and relativistic, but it reflects many aspects of wisdom as defined by the Berlin Wisdom Project, which began in 1984 under the leadership of Baltes, who, along with Birren, had championed the search for late-life potential. He had established a reputation as a leading quantitative psychologist by the time he returned to Germany in 1980 to become director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
BOILED down to its essence, the 'Berlin Paradigm' defined wisdom as 'an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life'. Heavily influenced by life-span psychology, the Berlin version of wisdom emphasised several complementary qualities: expert know-
ledge of both the 'facts' of human nature and the 'how' of dealing with decisions and dilemmas; an appreciation of one's historical, cultural and biological circumstances during the arc of a lifespan; an understanding of the 'relativism' of values and priorities; and an acknowledgment, at the level of both thought and action, of uncertainty.
The Berlin group focused more on expertise and performance than on personality traits because such an approach lent itself to more rigorous measurement than the typical self-report tests of psychological research. 'Wisdom in action', as the Berlin group put it, might manifest itself as good judgment, shrewd advice, emotional regulation and empathetic understanding; it could be found in familial interactions, in formal writing and in the relationship between a student and mentor or a doctor and patient.
The Germans were among the first to reach what is now a widespread conclusion: There's not a lot of wisdom around. They found no evidence that wisdom necessarily increases with age. Rather, they identified a 'plateau' of wisdom-related performance through much of middle and old age; a separate study by the group has indicated that wisdom begins, on average, to diminish around age 75, probably hand in hand with cognitive decline. Nonetheless, the Baltes group suggested in one paper that there might be an optimal age and that 'the 'world record' in wisdom may be held by someone in his or her 60s'.
No one really knows what wisdom is. Yet many of the emotional and cognitive traits that rank high on current research agendas - resilience, positivity, expert knowledge systems, cognitive processing and especially the regulation of emotion - closely overlap with qualities that have been consistently identified by social scientists as crucial to wisdom.
One of the most interesting areas of neuroscience research involves looking at the way people regulate their emotions and how that regulation can change over the course of a lifetime. Laura Carstensen of Stanford University has produced a substantial body of research over the past two decades showing that the ability to focus on emotional control is tightly linked to a person's sense of time and that older people in general seem to have a better feel for keeping their emotions in balance.
What Carstensen and her colleagues have found is that despite the well-documented cognitive declines associated with advancing age, older people seem to have figured out how to manage their emotions in a profoundly important way. Compared with younger people, they experience negative emotions less frequently, exercise better control over their emotions and rely on a nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to bounce back quickly from adverse moments. Indeed, they typically strive for emotional balance, which in turn seems to affect the ways their brains process information from their environment.
Carstensen and her colleagues believe that this motivation to focus less on the negative is probably unconscious and shaped by one's sense of time. 'According to our theory, this isn't a quality of ageing per se, but of time horizons,' she said. 'When your time perspective shortens, as it does when you come closer to the ends of things, you tend to focus on emotionally meaningful goals. When the time horizon is long, you focus on knowledge acquisition.'
As time horizons shorten, she added, 'things become much clearer, because people are letting their feelings navigate what they do, who they spend time with, what are the choices they're making in life, and it's about right now'.
Carstensen called this 'socioemotional selectivity theory' and said that in the shortened time perspective of old age, people are motivated to focus on the positive in a way that registers as a difference in cognitive processing in the brain.
This is all of a piece with life-span development theory (Carstensen got her PhD in a programme founded by Paul Baltes), which has as a central precept the idea that the decisions one makes at each stage of life involve trade-offs. She and her colleague Corinna Loeckenhoff have speculated that there may even be evolutionary reasons for this division between knowledge acquisition and emotional fulfilment. Acquiring knowledge increases the likelihood that young people will survive to reproductive age; emphasising emotional connection and kinship at an older age may increase the survival ability of one's children and grandchildren (and their genes) in the future.
Effects on health
THIS 'positivity' effect may even have long-term health consequences. In 2002, Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale University, collaborated with researchers for the Ohio Longitudinal Study, who have been following ageing in a cohort of people since 1975, and they made a very surprising finding: Older people with a more positive attitude towards old age lived 71/2 years longer.
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has been looking at patterns of brain activity associated with emotional regulation in a small group of older people who have participated in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. In a paper published last year, the Wisconsin team reported that older adults (the average age was 64) who regulated their emotions well showed a distinctly different pattern of brain activity from those who didn't.
These people apparently used their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that exerts 'executive control' over certain brain functions, to tamp down activity in the amygdala, a small region deep in the brain that processes emotional content, especially fear and anxiety. In people who are poor regulators of emotion, activity in the amygdala is higher, and daily measurements of the stress hormone cortisol follow a pattern that has been associated with poor health outcomes.
'Those people who are good at regulating negative emotion, inferred by their ability to voluntarily use cognitive strategies to reappraise a stimulus, show reductions in activation in the amygdala,' said Davidson, who added that such regulation probably results from 'something that has been at least implicitly trained over the years'.
Where does wisdom come from, and how does one acquire it? Surprisingly, a good deal of evidence suggests that the seeds of wisdom are planted earlier than old age, often earlier than middle age and possibly even earlier than young adulthood. And there are strong hints that wisdom is associated with an earlier exposure to adversity or failure. That certainly seems to be the case with emotional regulation and is consistent with Carstensen's ideas about shifting time horizons.
Karen Parker and her colleagues at Stanford have published several striking animal studies showing that a very early exposure to mild adversity seems to 'enhance the development of brain systems that regulate emotional, neuroendocrine and cognitive control' - at least in non-human primates. Some researchers are also exploring the genetic basis of resilience.
This notion that wise people might have been 'vaccinated' earlier in life by adversity reminds me of Vivian Clayton's father, sitting next to his frail mother in London while the German bombs rained down around them, celebrating their survival each time with a cup of tea.
The writer is the author, most recently, of Size Matters: How Height Affects The Health, Happiness And Success of Boys - And The Men They Become.
Copyright: New York Times Syndicate