Wisdom and well-being

A word like ‘wisdom’ is not scientifically defined and has a very wide everyday meaning. I am sure that anyone taking a pole of what people thought ‘wisdom’ meant would get as many definitions as the number of people consulted. However, it is central to the word that wisdom is not something you are born with but it comes with experience and maturity, even old age. It is not the same as intelligence; it is not the same as knowing a lot of information. We think of wise people as being able to solve vague and complex problems, especially social ones. But we also think of wise people as avoiding problems to begin with so they don’t have to solve them. We think to wise people as stable - not overjoyed or terribly sad but quietly content with an appropriate reaction to events. They are people-friendly, ready to give help and advice.

A recent paper takes the viewpoint that wisdom is a method of thinking (A Route to Well-Being: Intelligence Versus Wise Reasoning, by Grossman, Na, Varnum, Kitayama, Nisbett). The researchers concentrated on these strategies: consider the perspectives of other people, recognize that change occurs, see that there are many ways for the future to unfold, know the limits of certainly, search for compromise, try to solve/avoid conflict. The strength of this sort of definition is that it fits with measurements of other things. People who think in this way have greater life satisfaction, less negativity, good social relations, avoid ruminating and live longer. The ability to think this way increases with age and experience.

On the other hand, intelligence does not fit with satisfaction, longevity and the other benefits of wisdom.

Here is the abstract:

Laypeople and many social scientists assume that superior reasoning abilities lead to greater well-being. However, previous research has been inconclusive. This may be because prior investigators used operationalizations of reasoning that favored analytic as opposed to wise thinking. We assessed wisdom in terms of the degree to which people use various pragmatic schemas to deal with social conflicts. With a random sample of Americans, we found that wise reasoning is associated with greater life satisfaction, less negative affect, better social relationships, less depressive rumination, more positive versus negative words used in speech, and greater longevity. The relationship between wise reasoning and well-being held even when controlling for socioeconomic factors, verbal abilities, and several personality traits. As in prior work, there was no association between intelligence and well-being. Further, wise reasoning mediated age-related differences in well-being, particularly among middle-aged and older adults. Implications for research on reasoning, well-being, and aging are discussed.

and their conclusion:

Our results suggest that lay beliefs about the relationship between reasoning abilities and well-being are correct, with one caveat. Whereas wise reasoning about social conflicts contributes to well-being, abstract cognitive abilites (as measured by intelligence tests) do not. On the practical side, the present work suggests that despite the cognitive declines often associated with older age, the increasing number of older adults may be of great value for the social and emotional well-being of our future communities.

Where are the genes for intelligence?

Kevin Mitchell has a posting at Wiring the Brain (here) on the genetics of intelligence. This is a little off the subject of this blog, consciousness, but it is an interesting inversion of thought which happens often in brain science – turning ideas on their heads, so to speak.

He points out that we have known for a long time that intelligence/IQ/g is inherited to a significant degree. And now that we have the human genome available, we should be able to figure out which genes are important to intelligence. But, we have found too many with some small effect on intelligence and too few, well none, with any sizable effect. So we cannot find the gene/s ‘for intelligence’ that we expected.

It seems like we have genes that together give us a healthy, fit, smart individual. No single outstanding genes ‘for healthy’, ‘for fit’ or ‘for smart’. Instead we have to deal with failure of a gene (from a large group) any one of which could leave us sick, unfit and/or stupid. No genes ‘for intelligence’ but rather alleles/mutations ‘for stupidity’.

If this subject interests you, read the original post linked above. If not than simply think of it as an example of how models have to sometimes by inverted or even turned inside out in the light of evidence.

The intelligence divide

So most people believe that human intelligence is a different thing than animal intelligence, or if not really different, at least so much greater in amount that the effect is the same. Think of the quote that Stalin either said or didn’t - “a quantitative difference, if it is big enough, has a quality of difference all its own”. This is a sort of dogma: there is no comparison or likeness between animal and human intelligence. We don’t actually agree on how to define or measure it; we cannot clearly explain its neurobiology. So why be so sure that it is unique in its mechanism and/or orders of magnitude larger in humans over others?

In an article in Discovery (here), Changizi does an excellent job of looking at our underestimation of other animals and overestimation of ourselves. It is good, so follow the link if you have time.

First he points out that we are very good at seeing and judging the intelligence of other people but not good at seeing it in animals. This is to be expected considering evolutionary pressures. I was reminded of someone describing an episode that was burnt into their memory. They were on a fast boat in the Med and some dolphins came along side the started playing in and with the bow wave of the boat. One of the dolphins in a jump catch his eye. “Catch his eye”, he went on talking about this for a long time trying to get us listeners to understand the significance. Somehow the dolphin picked him out, knew he was watching the jump, and ‘catch his eye’ to communicate that spark of recognition. That is the sort of experience that we have with other humans but not that often with animals. We underestimate what we have in common with animals because they cannot read them well. We just have trouble seeing an animal as an individual character that thinks and feels.

Next Changizi points out how little is needed biologically to give us our language and culture and therefore we overestimate our own intelligence. Culture harnessed (Harnessed is the name of his book on the subject) what we had for brains in our cultural evolution without there needing to be much change to our biology in the past couple of hundred thousand years. This would indicate that our brains are not very different in basic mechanisms from other vertebrates and especially other mammals. It is the culture that makes the gap. It is interesting to look at dogs and their owners. It would seem that dogs are much better at reading the thoughts, feelings and intentions of their owners then their owners are attuned to their dogs. Does this mean that dogs are better at non-verbal communication than humans? I think not; humans are just a bit lazy or arrogant and could read their dogs better if they cared to. But it does indicate that dogs do not have a different sort of intelligence or a huge different in amount or they would not be so good at reading us.

Changizi’s final paragraph make clear how complex he thinks intelligence is.

Now, I’d hate to give the impression that, because we humans are much less smart than is commonly thought, that building artificial intelligence is on the horizon. The intelligence of all animals - especially birds and mammals - is so deeply complex that I believe we’re centuries, not decades, away.

My intent in knocking ourselves down a peg is not so much to lower us, but to raise our appreciation of the intelligence found in other animals.

Centuries may be an exaggeration.

when there is no time to think

Jonah Lehrer writes about what it takes to be a quarterback (here).

First, it is not easy:

The ball is snapped. The quarterback drops back, immediately surrounded by a chorus of grunts and groans, the sounds of linemen colliding. The play has just begun, but the pocket is already collapsing around him. He must focus his eyes downfield on his receivers and know where they’re going while also reading the defense. Is that cornerback blitzing or dropping back? When will the safety leave the middle? The QB has fewer than three seconds to make sense of this mess. If he hesitates, even for a split second, he’ll get sacked. No other team sport is so dependent on the judgment of a single player…

Teams use tests of cognitive skill (Wonderlic) to judge potential quarterbacks, but many of the most successful had low scores on the tests. The wrong thing is being measured. There isn’t time in the pocket to use the type of cognition that Wonderlic measures.

So how, then, do they make their decisions? Turns out, every pass play is a pure demonstration of human feeling. Scientists have in recent years discovered that emotions, which are often dismissed as primitive and unreliable, can in fact reflect a vast amount of information processing. In many instances, our feelings are capable of responding to things we’re not even aware of, noticing details we don’t register on a conscious level. … “QBs are tested on every single pass play,” Hasselbeck says. “To be good at the position, you’ve got to know the answer before you even understand the question. You’ve got to be able to glance at a defense and recognize what’s going on. And you’ve got to be able to do that when the left tackle gets beat and you’re running away from a big lineman. That ability might not depend on real IQ, but it sure takes a lot of football IQ.”

And getting this football expertise:

“There is virtually no evidence that expertise is due to genetic or innate factors,” Ericsson says. “Rather, it strongly suggests that expertise requires huge amounts of effort and practice.” This is because it takes time to train our feelings, to embed those useful patterns into the brain. Before a quarterback can find the open man, parsing the defense in a glance, he must spend years studying cornerbacks and crossing routes. It looks easy only because he’s worked so hard.

What it takes to do anything complex really well is disciplined practice on very specific skills for enormous amounts of time – diligence, grit, dedication. This appears to be true of any athletic sport and any performance art.

What does all that practice do? I believe that one thing is that it eliminates the need for any conscious activity. Thought that has to pass stepwise through consciousness and working memory is slow and limited. Thought that results from having made all the necessary connections automatic is fast, smooth and accurate. Hours of practice is how this transfer is achieved.


Some avoid the word ‘communication’ because it is in some ways too vague and in others too specific. I like it because it does not make arbitrary boundaries between different modes of communication, reasons for engaging in it, or content. What is specific about communication is that it takes at least two to communicate; it is not about what is said, written, illustrated, singed, sang or whatever, nor about what is heard, read, seen and so on, it is about an exchange between two minds.

I regularly read a blog by E. Bolles called Babel’s Dawn (here). He reviews many books and articles on the origins of language but always comes back to his favourite idea, that there is a triangle of joint attention involving the speaker, listener and topic. Words pilot attention to topics, a bit like pointing a finger but more complex. I like this idea.

This fits with an idea that is a favourite of mine. I see a word as having no meaning by itself, its meaning is a result of its relationship to other words. There are a few words, proper names of places, people etc., that can take their meaning from actually pointing to something. Other words point to concepts and archetypes in the mind. And in turn, the concepts get their meaning from their connection with other concepts, a web of actual connections that by their relationships define their meanings. This is why we seem to rely on metaphor so heavily. If we have a group of entities (words, concepts, things) and they are joined by lines (relationships, actions) to form a structure that we know and understand, we can re-use that structure. As an example, we have place A, place B, moving from A to B, and the thing moving so that the structure is a journey. This can be elaborated with the reason/goal of the move, the path, events along the way, and other elements/relationships. A can be thought of as the start and B as the destination. We can re-use the metaphor for a hike, a drive, a train journey, a boat ride and every different use adds depth and complexity to the metaphor. Now if I want to steer joint attention to the end point of a plan, I can say, ‘think about our goal and how close we have come to it’. We can go further and use the structure for non-journey ideas: a career, a life, a task and so on. Using words to pilot joint attention only works because we share a large number of elaborate metaphors. We learn our language/s and our culture’s metaphors and meaning structures and because we share these with others, we can (almost literally) point to something in someone else’s mind. This is an amassing thing – instead of using my finger to point to a tree in the yard, I can use a word to point at a tree concept in your head.

Another idea that I find interesting is the synchronization of two people in communication. We do not wait until someone stops speaking to parse the meaning of what they have said. In really successful communication, we start timing our own thinking to be in the same timing pattern as the speaker. We predict what the other is going to say ahead of hearing it. We take in their whole person to understand what they are saying: voice, face, posture, movement as well as words. We do not communicate in just words but with our whole selves. Apparently this synchronization, prediction and shared concepts can be vaguely by made out in fMRI scans and these patterns break down as soon as the two people lose understanding of what the other is saying. We are actually able to share a joint attention to a topic that is a concept in our brains.

There is a question often raised – does our language reflect the nature of our thoughts, or does thought reflect the nature of our languages? I cannot think of this question in any other way than the structure and processes of the brain dictate the general form of language (joint attention, metaphor, synchrony and so on). But the shared culture is what makes communication work. We have to want to communicate, we have to share a language and very large numbers of metaphors before it clicks. Sharing a culture has a large effect on what we think (but not how we go about the thinking).

So now back to the topic of this blog. It seems that we communicate with ourselves as well as others and we do at least a fair amount of this internal communication through consciousness. The production of speech is not conscious, the perception of speech is not conscious. We have no feeling for how either of these things is done – it is opaque. But the meaning, the high level representation of the voice and words are usually made conscious. This may be because the formation of a grammatical utterance is quite complicated so that working memory is required to hold parts of the stream while other parts are prepared or processed. Anything that needs working memory is extremely likely to be made conscious and transferred to short-term memory. I cannot see how most speech could be produced or understood without making use of working memory. Short-term memory would also be needed for any utterance longer than a simple sentence or phrase; for a conversation we need to know what went before.

I assume that many (maybe most) animals have concepts, communication, working memory and consciousness. But over the last few hundred thousand years, humans have fashioned from these common attributes, the marvel of verbal communication. Again Babel’s Dawn has a constant idea that the reason language was acquired by humans and not other animals is in the nature of our societies. Put quite simply, we have come to have trust in sharing information with our fellows. Playing with language is as dangerous as playing with fire or wolves, but the gains are just as great, probably greater.

Types of cognition

The Frontal Cortex blog has a very interesting posting (here) about learning and intelligence. Lehrer points out that g, general intelligence, measured by the IQ test is not the only intelligence. He discusses a type1 and type2 cognitive system.

In order to understand the limitations of general intelligence, at least as presently defined, it’s important to delve into one of the of the great themes of modern psychology, which is the essential role of the unconscious. While Freud associated the unconscious with the unspeakable urges of the id, we now know that our mental underworld is actually a remarkable information processing device, which helps us make sense of reality.

This has led to the dual process model of cognition, in which the mind is divided into two general modes. There is Type 1 thinking, which is largely unconscious, automatic, contextual, emotional and speedy; it turns out that most of our behavior is shaped by these inarticulate thoughts. (Consider, for instance, what happens when you brake for a yellow light, or order a dish on a menu as soon as you see it, or have an “intuition” about how to approach a problem.) And then there is Type 2 thinking, which is deliberate, explicit, effortful and intentional. (Imagine an amateur chess player, contemplating the implications of each potential move.) Needless to say, intelligence tests excel at measuring Type 2 thought processes, which is why the standard IQ test largely relies on abstract puzzles and math problems, and correlates with working memory performance.

The end result is a growing contradiction between how we define intelligence - it’s all about explicit thought and g - and how we conceptualize cognition, which is inextricably bound up with Type 1 processes. (In other words, we currently measure intelligence by excluded the vast majority of the information processing taking place inside our head.)

… There’s a growing body of evidence that reliable differences exist in Type 1 thinking, and that these differences have consequences. This helps explain why even the most mundane features of Type 1 thinking … significantly correlate with math and verbal scores on the ACT. Other studies have found that performance on a variety of implicit learning tasks - the kind of learning that takes place in Type 1 - were significantly associated with academic performance, even when “psychometric intelligence,” or g, was controlled for. In other words, not every unconscious works the same way.

I believe this difference between implicit and explicit cognition has to do with the use of short term memory. Cognition that needs to use short term memory will, I believe, have to make conscious the information to be saved for use in later cognitive processes. While cognition that does not require the use of short term memory is faster and easier if none of it rises into consciousness. A cognitive process that repeatedly passes a sub-product through consciousness/working memory will appear to be done in a ‘conscious mind’ although all the processing is actually done unconsciously.

Further I think that if a cognitive task is repeated many times that the networks of neurons involved in the cognition will grow and change so that the used of working memory will be reduced or even eliminated. Then the task will not rise to consciousness and will appear to be automatic.

The measure of type 2 intelligence may be largely the result of the capacity of working memory and type 1 intelligence may be the result of speed and conductivity of the brain’s networks. There is probably a role for the cerebellum, thalamus and other brain areas in intelligence.

Size is not everything

ScienceDaily reports on the work of L. Chittka (here) on the relationship between brain size and complexity.

“Research repeatedly shows how insects are capable of some intelligent behaviours scientists previously thought was unique to larger animals. Honeybees, for example, can count, categorise similar objects like dogs or human faces, understand ‘same’ and ‘different’, and differentiate between shapes that are symmetrical and asymmetrical…. We know that body size is the single best way to predict an animal’s brain size….The size increase allows the brain to function in greater detail, finer resolution, higher sensitivity or greater precision: in other words, more of the same….In bigger brains we often don’t find more complexity, just an endless repetition of the same neural circuits over and over. This might add detail to remembered images or sounds, but not add any degree of complexity. …This must mean that much ‘advanced’ thinking can actually be done with very limited neuron numbers. Computer modelling shows that even consciousness can be generated with very small neural circuits, which could in theory easily fit into an insect brain. In fact, the models suggest that counting could be achieved with only a few hundred nerve cells and only a few thousand could be enough to generate consciousness.”

I believe that this may be a slight over simplification. For a particular kind of animal, after correction for body size, brain size predicts intelligence. It is just that intelligence does not relate to brain size across different types of animal. Also the body size correction must be made. Of course intelligence would have something to do with level of detail, resolution, precision etc. and that relationship would follow brain size within a particular brain architecture. But a particular capability (without reference to its resolution) would not be related to brain size. In that case all animals could have some degree of consciousness.

There is a quote mistakenly attributed to Stalin or Lenin but said by David Glantz about the WW2 Soviet army, “Sometimes, quantity has a quality all its own”. This is probably true of brains.


In a recent ScienceDaily item was a summary of Joydeep Bhattacharya’s work on the ‘eureka’ moment.

“Real-world problems come in two broad flavors: those requiring sequential reasoning and those requiring transformative reasoning: a break from past thinking and restructuring followed by an insight (also known as Eureka or “Aha!”), which is a process by which a problem solver abruptly, through a quantum leap of understanding with no conscious forewarning, moves from a state of not knowing how to solve a problem to a state of knowing how to solve it.

Despite its widespread reports, the brain mechanism underlying eureka is poorly understood. What happens in the brain during that particular moment? Is that moment purely sudden as often reported by the solver or is there any (neural) precursor to it? Can we predict whether and when, if at all, the solver will hit upon the final eureka moment?

In a new study led by Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths, University of London, these questions were addressed by measuring brainwaves of human participants as they attempted to solve puzzles or brainteasers that call for intuitive strategies and novel insight. They detected an array of specific patterns in characteristic brainwaves which occurred several (up to eight) seconds before the participant was consciously aware of an insight. Right hemisphere was further found to be critically involved in transformative reasoning.

These results indicate that insight is a distinct spectral, spatial, and temporal pattern of unconscious neural activity corresponding to pre-solution cognitive processes, and not to one’s self-assessment of their insight or the emotional “Aha!” that accompanies problem solution. Further, this study also postulates that consciousness is like an emergent tip of an iceberg of neuronal information processing, and remote brainwave patterns could reveal the underlying structure leading to that emergence.”


It is interesting that conscious concentration on a problem can postpone the eureka type solution. As Richard Highfield’s Telegraphy article puts it, “Scientists have discovered why Archimedes had to relax in a bath before discovering his famous principle.” One might also say we know why Newton was relaxing under an apple tree or Kekule was falling off to sleep.


The stages that can be traced in combined behaviour, verbal reporting and brain wave measurements are: mental impasse including attention overload, relaxation of attention allowing the restructuring the problem, deeper understanding or insight into the problem and its solution, sudden consciousness of the correct solution or the insightful path to it.

A bird’s eye view

Until recently the conventional wisdom was that birds were not very intelligent. But this view is changing. Especially the crow, parrot, owl and woodpecker families contain some very intelligent species. Some of these birds show traits that imply brains as powerful as the smarter mammals. The list is amazing: using tools, making tools, powerful spatial memory, logical reasoning, communication, social behaviour in family and larger groups, cooperation, consoling behaviour, counter-espionage showing a theory of mind, passing the mirror test for self awareness, an artistic talent. Relative to body weight, a crow has as big a brain as a chimp. Not only are they comparable to mammals in their intelligence, they also seem to have a similar sort of intelligence. So it is probably that they have a similar sort of consciousness as primates, dolphins, dogs, elephants and the like.


But there is a rub. A bird’s brain is very different from a mammal’s. Here is the intro to Gunturkun’s 2005 paper (please supply umlauts on all u’s in the name) The avian ‘prefrontal cortex’ and cognition.

“Mammals such as humans, macaques or rats can adjust their behaviour to changing demands. They are capable of reversing learned behavioral choices, selecting appropriate responses according to contextual information, and withholding actions until a suitable situation occurs. In short, they optimally organize their behaviour over time. The set of cognitive skills required for this behavioural optimization is called ‘executive functions’ and is associated with the operations of the prefrontal cortex. The phylogenetic success of the order of mammals is probably related to the extraordinary cognitive flexibility that is generated by prefrontal circuits. Birds represent a broadly equally successful vertebrate order and a vast literature on avian cognitive skills testifies that birds are able to generate the same set of executive functions as mammals. However, birds and mammals differ substantially with regard to the organization of their forebrains, with birds lacking a laminated cortex. So, which neutal mechanisms do birds use to generate cognitive functions for which the prefrontal cortex is required in mammals?”


He goes on to examine the structure of the two brain types (mammal and bird). Of course, they share the basic vertebrate pattern of a three part brain (forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain). The hindbrain, midbrain and the basal nuclei of the forebrain are highly conserved through evolution. It is in the rest of the forebrain that birds and mammals differ. Rather than our neocortex, birds have the neostriatum. Interestingly the connections, neurotransmitters, and functions of these two structures are similar. In particular the executive functions have been compared in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL) part of the neostriatum.

“The mammalian PFC and the avian NCL show an astonishing degree of resemblance in terms of anatomical, neurochemical, electrophysiological and cognitive characteristics. Based on topographical and genetic arguments, however, they do not seem to be homologous as a telencephalic entity within the pallium but probably represent a case of evolutionary convergence in terms of neuronal circuits as paralleled by recent studies that clearly reveal that, in particular, corvids (crows) and parrots are able to generate cognitive abilities identical to apes. Emery and Clayton argue that these common cognitive operations derive from a shared cognitive tool kit consisting of causal reasoning, flexibility, imagination and perspective. Most of these shared cognitions thus depend on the PFC and the NCL…This makes it likely that there exist only very limited neural solutions for the realization of higher cognitive functions.”


I see another possibility. Maybe the root of the ‘tool kit’ is in the older parts of the forebrain (not the PFC or NCL but the basal nuclei and thalamus) that communicate with either the PFC or the NCL. It would be like the ‘tool kit’ has a computer to use in both mammals and birds but the computer was created from enlargement of different parts of the basal nuclei in the two types of vertebrate.


Also I presume that the ‘tool kit’ also includes consciousness.