Word to the wise

Researchers forge new science of enlightenment.

Thinker.jpgGetting old? Enjoy some dark chocolate and let the antioxidants work their anti-aging magic. Having trouble concentrating? Drink coffee for caffeine’s focus power. Feeling bummed out? Pop some mood-boosting herbs like St. John’s wort or ginkgo biloba.

Awash in a culture of quick fixes for every conceivable physical and psychological ailment, I arrived at a May 12 talk on the University’s Defining Wisdom Project confident I’d leave a sage—or at least perceptive enough to stop doing foolish things like accepting a Facebook friend request from my junior-high nemesis.

No sooner had I started on my organic strawberry shortcake—the lecture was part of the Divinity School’s Wednesday lunch series—did Howard Nusbaum, project co-director and psychology chair, dash my hopes.

“I’m not going to define wisdom for you,” he began. “I don’t even know what wisdom is.” Seriously?

Had the whipped-cream-doused dessert been any less delicious, I might have bailed. Fortunately, the Div School student chefs know their pastries.

Turns out, the Defining Wisdom project hasn’t exactly defined wisdom yet, but it’s certainly tackling the beast head-on. The $2 million program, launched in September 2007 by the University’s Arete Initiative, has awarded grants to 23 psychologists, philosophers, biologists, computer scientists, and other researchers from around the world with the aim of understanding, measuring, and cultivating a field of wisdom science.

“Wisdom seems abstract, like a mystical superpower,” said Nusbaum, explaining why it’s traditionally been overlooked as a research area. No longer, thanks to the Defining Wisdom cadre. Selected from more than 600 proposals, their projects include:

Note to self: all Defining Wisdom findings will eventually—no publication date set yet—be compiled into a book. In the meantime, enjoy the shortcake and try not to be an idiot.

Brooke E. O'Neill, AM'04

May 28, 2010