A veteran science writer delivers a dense but illuminating combination of philosophical ideas and hard research.
Laboratories study intellect, emotion and ethics, writes Hall (Size Matters: How Height Affects the Health, Happiness, and Success of Boys-and the Men They Become, 2006, etc.), but only recently have scientists turned their attention to wisdom, which may be defined as using all three to make a sensible decision. The author begins by sketching the teachings of history's first great wise men (Socrates, Buddha and Jesus) not forgetting Confucius's admonition that paths to wisdom include reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest) and experience (the bitterest). In the pre–CT scan era of the 1970s, a graduate student, Vivian Clayton, published pioneering research. Her first study, aimed at lawyers, attempted to determine if wisdom increases with age. The results were inconclusive; later studies suggested that it's important but not essential. This and her later papers produced a considerable buzz at psychological meetings, but she failed to receive research grants and left academia in 1982. By this time the ball was rolling, aided by swelling scientific fascination with the brain and dazzling high-tech instruments to examine it. It turns out that patterns of knowledge and judgment typical of wisdom appear in adolescence and don't measurably increase over time. Exposure to adversity such as war or personal loss helps, although it's not a good idea to have too much. Those searching for easy tips on achieving wisdom will not find them here, but diligent readers will be rewarded.
A steady stream of insights into the psychology and neurological mechanisms of wise decision-making and the researchers uncovering them.