Book Review: Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall

Review by Rachel Zelkowitz

Of all human attributes, wisdom is perhaps the most vaunted. Yet ask someone to define the trait and the answer will probably echo the test applied to obscenity in 1964: I know it when I see it.


In his latest book, Hall, a science writer, attempts to tackle the question of what defines wisdom and what science has learned to date about this elusive characteristic. What results is a comprehensive and thought-provoking book that examines the difficult topic of wisdom in a fair — even wise — manner.

Hall begins by surveying early attempts to understand wisdom, including biblical stories (think King Solomon) and the musings of ancient philosophers. He then fast-forwards to modern neuroscience’s take on
wisdom, where his model breaks wisdom down into eight major parts. These “neural pillars of wisdom,” as Hall calls them, range from emotional regulation — essentially coping ability — and moral reasoning to altruism and compassion.

Interviews with leading neuroscientists describe experiments that attempt to reveal the inner brain workings behind these pillars. Researchers have examined, for instance, the brain activity of a Tibetan monk practicing meditation and the cognitive processes of volunteers deciding between receiving a smaller gift certificate now or a larger one later.

The overarching goal of this research is to explore broader questions such as whether wisdom is innate, learnable or a bit of both, and if wisdom is a uniquely human trait. There are no easy answers, Hall notes. Science may one day succeed in taking wisdom apart to study its pieces, but some mystery will remain about how these elements coalesce to make a person wise in an often foolish world.

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 333 p., $27.95.