Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Socrates gets an brain MRI scan
While I gather my words for the next post of philosophy and poetry, here's a link to an article on the neuropsychology of wisdom. I am on record as insisting that any "philosophy" that discards sophia is just so much academic, cocktail-party, or coffeehouse power jockeying; but bearing in mind some recent admonishments about the impossibility of disregarding science, I thought I might attempt to allay suspicions with a short post on the science of mental states.
The article's author, Stephen S. Hall, maintains a website including a blog, where there are some marvelous posts. The article itself is the germ of a book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. You can also listen to the radio interview Hall gave today. (Note that Hall's interest is science in general, not "just" wisdom; see, e.g., this interview on genetics, the impact of science, and "science writing," among other things. A look at some of his archived articles on his website will reinforce this).
On wisdom, one of the interesting things I note is the cross-cultural consensus on what it entails: among other things, emotional equanimity, a kind of altruism or empathy, and a long view; wisdom, Hall underscores, seems to be future-oriented. (It is no coincidence, I suggest, that this is what Heidegger says about Dasein in its authenticity).
Regarding emotional balance, I am reminded of another famous study, the so-called "Nun Study". A good summary is in Martin Selligman's book Authentic Happiness. The results point to a fairly strong correlation between optimism and longevity. The nuns (an ideal control population, since almost all 'outside
factors' like lifestyle, diet, exercise were eliminated), all wrote, in the 1930s, personal statements, which many decades later, scoured for keywords betokening either optimism or pessimism, yielded surprising results when matched with the actual lifespans of the authors. The study seems to be strong evidence that optimism really does correlate with long life.
However, another study, by Lauren Abramson and Lyn Alloy (& also referenced by Selligman), yields a curious twist when contrasted with the Nun Study. College students were were put into situations in which they had a degree of control over a certain outcome--turning on a green light. Sometimes that control was of degree zero, sometimes it was 100%, sometimes it was in between. Students who were depressed tended to accurately assess how much control they had. Non-depressed students tended always to overstate the degree of control they had-- sometimes believing they were influencing the outcome of whatever the process was when in fact it had nothing to do with what they did.
This is the famous "illusion of control," which plays into everything from gambling to witchcraft; it's also the much-debated phenomenon of "depressive realism."
Put these two studies together and what do you learn? In short, and oversimplifying for effect: if you are a look-on-the-bright-side type, you will be happy and long-lived, but wrong; and if you are a pessimist, you will tend to be accurate, dour, and die young. But the paradox that arises is, how to assess this apparently accurate finding? does it reinforce pessimism? Is it possible to cultivate optimism for the sake of its benefits (apparently accurately assessed) even when you know that pessimism, not optimism, hones (or at least correlates with) accuracy?
It may be possible to be scientific about happiness, and even about wisdom. But it is harder, and more important, to be wise about science.