Monday, May 26, 2014

Theory of Wisdom

Having looked at wonder, thought, meaning and the dynamic of inquiry through the lens of neural science, it's worth considering the elusive psychological dynamic of wisdom.

Stephen Hall's book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscienceis replete with anecdotes, but just scratches the surface in offering a reductionist explanation for the phenomena of wisdom.

Scientists are studying the process of decision making in the brain and in particular wisdom itself.  At its essence, wisdom (like all other brain functions) is the time-measurable response to neural stimuli quantifiable in neural correlates of the brain's neural network.

In 2000, Dr. Eric Kandel shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of the molecular dynamics involved in learning and memory; providing fundamental insight into the brain's neuroplasticity (video).

More recently, Dr. Giulio Tononi and Dr. Chiara Cirelli have argued that sleep is a critical part of memory making; suggesting that it implements a pruning mechanism of the neural network in memory formation.  Tononi and Cirelli are making major contributions to research started in the early 1960's.

These fundamental discoveries on how memories are made in the brain are important to understanding the physical and neurological dynamics of wisdom.  The sleep research in particular points to the important factor dedicated time 'invested' in sleep has on memory formation:

...Scientists first proposed the idea that sleep is important to memory nearly a century ago, and plenty of experiments since then have shown that after a night of sleep, and sometimes just a nap, newly formed memories “stick” better than they would if one had spent the same amount of time awake...

Sleep forges wisdom.

The proper perspective for developing a Theory of Wisdom is achieved when the following question is asked:
What makes one neural correlate response wiser than another neural response?
Here game theory, cited by Stephen Hall in his book, comes into play (pun intended). (Also see: Game Theory Intro.)

Fundamental to game theory is the quantifiable concept of utility:
In any game, utility represents the motivations of players.  A utility function for a given player assigns a number for every possible outcome of the game with the property that a higher number implies that the outcome is more preferred...
John Nash won a Nobel Prize in 1994 for offering a systematic way of identifying the utilities in non-cooperative games and quantifying the Nash equilibrium.  Since then, Steven Brams has made a major contribution to game theory providing insight into the complex strategies used for maximizing utility with Theory of Moves (TOM):
Another approach to inducing cooperation in PD [prisoner's dilemma] and other variable-sum games is the theory of moves (TOM). Proposed by the American political scientist Steven J. Brams, TOM allows players, starting at any outcome in a payoff matrix, to move and countermove within the matrix, thereby capturing the changing strategic nature of games as they evolve over time. In particular, TOM assumes that players think ahead about the consequences of all of the participants’ moves and countermoves when formulating plans...
The implementation of the 'think ahead' strategies quantified in TOM  are manifested on a neural network that has been molded by the memory making dynamics detailed by Eric Kandel and the memory pruning mechanism argued by doctors Tononi and Cirelli.

Building on:

  • the well established concepts offered by game theory to quantify maximum utilities,
  • the fundamentals of the time-dependent neural responses and
  • the time-dependent formation of the neural network (where wisdom is ultimately manifested) through sleep 

the following is offered as a Theory of Wisdom (TOW):


the following relationship mathematically represents a way to quantify and measure wisdom:

W = U/t 

With this simple ratio, an individual's wisdom can be assessed.

The following dynamics can also be put into perspective:
  • When it's qualitatively observed that someone is wise there is an implied comparative to the observation. The implication is that the wise individual is wiser than an unwise (or naïve) individual.  Both individuals will process the same neurological stimuli, but the wise individual's response/decision will have greater quantifiable utility (U) than that of the unwise individual within a comparable unit of time (t).  Having a larger utility to the same stimuli (question/problem/challenge/etc.) in the same unit of time is one way to result in a larger amount of wisdom.

  • As humans we have acquired a foundation of wisdom (built-in skills, genetically hard-wired into the brain's neural network); which is the study of evolutionary psychology.  As discussed above, the other way that wisdom is acquired by our brain's neural network  is through neural stimuli (experience) that 'rewires' the brain through the memory making mechanism fundamental to neuroplasticity.  

    A wise(r) individual has more experience and thus a potentially more optimally developed brain. The potential qualifier is stressed because, like the evolutionary utility being mathematically quantified with evolutionary game theory, any given utility (U) is not known until it is put to a test and measured in an 'error then trial' (not trial and error) dynamic.

  • An individual may respond to stimuli that results in maximum utility (U).  But if it takes that individual a very long time (t) to do so, then the quantifiable wisdom (W) would be very small; relative to stimuli that 'started the clock' to quantify/evaluate the wisdom.  This is because the divisor in the wisdom ratio above would result in a large time value (t); possibly as long as a lifetime for an individual to 'wise up'.

    The longer the time (t) to maximum utility (U), the smaller the resulting wisdom (W).  Small comparable wisdom is the definition of being unwise/naïve; whether that value was derived by a small utility (U) or large (t) in the wisdom (W = U/t) ratio.

  • Given comparable neural stimuli (experience) that results in a neuroplasticly transformed brain that responds with the same utility (U) in time (t) as that of a wise individual, an unwise/naive individual's neural network could be transformed into one that will respond wisely (large W); with age (time) comes wisdom.  Age is rich in wisdom but poor in time; a corollary to the adage 'Youth is wasted on the young'.
As an aside, insight (and wisdom) would have been appropriate in Stephen Hall's discussion of Socrates' "wisdom tour" in his book.   He rightfully observes on page 255: a world of ongoing social interactions, as in the serial repetitions of games in game theory, people who insist on winning at all costs, whose self-interest trumps sociality, and whose greed (financial or emotional) exceeds the bounds of fairness end up playing solitaire. A famous Sicilian proverb holds that "the man who plays alone never loses," but in social reality most of us experience, it also means he never wins...
It's ironic that Hall misses this very lesson while advocating that Socrates was a paragon of wisdom.  On page 21 he notes:
...Socrates managed to alienate, humiliate, illuminate, and educate his countrymen about the paradoxes of Socratic wisdom...  
It escapes Hall that Socrates was less than wise with respect to his social skills; a major contribution to his trial and death.  Socrates would have benefited from the wisdom of a fictional Sicilian and game theory practitioner extraordinaire, The Godfather's Don Vito Corleone, famous for counseling: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer".  Sage advice that even the Dalai Lama should have used.

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