Learning wisdom

Mike Clayton explores some of the neuroscience that’s helping us understand and develop the concept of wisdom 

Who does not want to be thought of as wise? I suspect we all would, right?  But there’s a problem, which was neatly summed up by Malcolm Fraser, the former AustralianPrime Minister:

“Wisdom is a rare commodity.  There are a lot of very brilliant people, bright people, clever people; not so many people who are wise.”

In fact, wisdom is pretty hard to define, with different cultures applying different interpretations to the same concept. So it seems to me that the truth is that wisdom is a basket of concepts, with one thing at its heart: the ability to use your knowledge well.

One consequence of the subtleness of the idea of wisdom is that it is often thought of as something that you either have or you don’t. In that sense, it sits in the same bucket as such things as charisma, gravitas and even leadership. But, like them, those people whom we do recognise as wise were not born with wisdom. Nobody said of their six-year-old selves: “Now there is someone we should listen to – their words are wise.” So they must have learnt something along the way.

And if they can, you can too.

So the next obvious question is why should you bother? And the answer I hear from clients is simple. They recognise that, as professionals, managers and leaders, being smart and intelligent can only get you so far. Because, as Malcolm Fraser said, there are lots of people like that. If you want people to look to you for guidance, to seek out your advice and take heed of your observations, you need something more. You need other people to see you as wise.

Smart people know the rules and they know how to work within them. They even know when to break them. But it takes wisdom to understand how to deal with situations where the rules no longer apply, in complex, evolving domains, where the patterns are subtle and new. That takes wisdom, and is why my clients seek it out.

The components of wisdom

Thinking about the areas you need to develop, to start to be seen as wise, led me to develop a simple, yet rich, model of seven pillars on which wisdom rests.

The seven pillars

Let’s consider, briefly, what each means. The first thing we notice when we are with people generally acknowledged to be wise is a deep sense of self-awareness and an inner strength. They seem to have little fear and a lot of objectivity even in threatening situations. Some traditions refer to this as ‘compassionate detachment’, a term I find
very compelling.

Secondly, wise people seem to be able to perceive and interpret situations more clearly than the rest of us and that arises from two things: paying close attention and being completely present on the one hand and drawing more subtle distinctions and noticing more tenuous connections than the rest of us on the other.

And the wisest people never stand still intellectually. They are forever open, curious and learning about new things. One aspect is particularly important to me: they value the ability to ask good questions above the knack of giving good answers.

In the world, people generally accredited as wise are usually also perceived as demonstrating the highest ethical standards too. They are determined, generous and controlled in their actions.

And in their judgements too. Of all the seven pillars, perhaps this is the most readily associated with wisdom in the common mind. Reasoning, weighing evidence, predicting and making sound choices are, if you like, the most evident outputs upon which we judge wisdom.

But judgement is not enough if you do not apply it fairly. The importance of fairness to humans, as one of our primary drivers means we expect right action to go alongside right choice. Consequently, we trust wise people to mediate conflict and apply sound values to their choices.

The final pillar is authority. We expect the wisest among us to communicate exceptionally well: to inspire, to influence and to persuade with ease
and confidence.

What is wisdom, neurologically?

Nobody has found a part of the brain that corresponds to wisdom and I doubt they ever will. However, research into the neurobiology of intelligence continues to uncover significant clues about where different aspects of our intelligence lie. So how are wisdom and intelligence connected? They are clearly different things but research does suggest a hypothesis for how they
are connected.

But first we have to understand a little about intelligence and accept the weight of evidence in favour of a general intelligence factor, g, and of component factors. Of these components, the two most widely acknowledged are fluid intelligence, Gf, and crystallised intelligence, Gc. Each probably represents a cluster of characteristics that strongly correlate with each other.

Your fluid intelligence allows you to reason and solve problems and is largely biologically determined – a function of genetic and environmental factors, like health and injury. It developed rapidly in your childhood and adolescence and peaked in your late teens or early twenties. From then on, the decline is steady and significant. Current evidence suggests that physical exercise and healthy behaviours can slow the decline in Gf but brain training has little or no effect on the decline. However, while out-of-the-box systems may not work, continuing to learn and interact socially across a wide range of intellectual activities can slow the decline of your fluid intelligence.

Your crystallised intelligence is a measure of the knowledge, understanding and abilities you have acquired. It also rose during your early years but it continues to rise. While that increase has slowed, we appear to be able to cultivate Gc indefinitely, up to the point where physiological abuses like disease or injury physically damage this ability. It is crystallised intelligence that gives you the breadth of knowledge that you need to discern patterns, make connections and assess complex patterns.

My hypothesis is that, as Gf declines, we may become poorer at solving novel problems but our increasing knowledge and understanding add a new dimension. This access to greater knowledge can compensate. Among those who cultivate their crystallised intelligence while managing to retain as much of their more flexible fluid intelligence capacity as possible is an area of vital importance to organisations everywhere and one that should be equally close to the heart of L&D practitioners will be those who are widely perceived as wise. 


It may be downhill for your fluid intelligence from your early twenties but your brain is changing constantly in lots of positive ways too. The old trope of never gaining new brain cells is, quite simply, drivel. As we age and learn, three things continue to happen during our lives.

  1.  We make new neurons to accommodate new memories. So neuron growth is quite localised to the hippocampus. Interestingly, neuron creation is suppressed when we are stressed and enhanced when we exercise.
  2. We lose synaptic connections between neurons. At birth, our brains are wired for a vast array of possibilities open to infants around the world. You experienced only a subset of those experiences, so some of that potential was lost. This is called experience-expectant learning and strengthens connections needed for experiences that are relevant.
  3. We also create new synapses to learn new things that were not expected by our new-born brain. This is experience-dependent learning.

All of this means that our brains continue to change through adulthood – they are plastic.

Developing your crystallised intelligence effectively

Brain-friendly learning has been a popular concept with trainers since before I came into the training profession and it continues to be. The major shifts have been a weeding out of the ‘that makes sense, it must work’ ideas from the evidence-based concepts. While there is still plenty of mumbo jumbo in some quarters, the best practitioners are reading and learning about neuroscience and basing their practices on hard evidence. So what do we know for sure?

Health is important

While the evidence about specific food stuff is patchy, your overall general health is a key factor in your ability to learn. Sleep is important in managing stress levels, creating the right ability to concentrate and, via dreaming, in consolidating memory. And one thing is beyond doubt, allowing yourself to become dehydrated will seriously hamper your brain functioning.

Exercise improves memory

Maintaining just 40 minutes per week of exercise can increase the size of your hippocampus; a structure central to the learning processes in your brain. It can also enhance connectivity between neurons and regular exercisers outperform couch potatoes in measures of fluid intelligence and therefore in reasoning and problem-solving tests.

Meditation helps you focus

Mindfulness is all the rage and, in wisdom terms, a key component of good perception. One of the primary tools to enhance mindfulness, meditation, can also increase the fitness of your brain for learning. Regular meditators can concentrate better, become more rational and more creative and also have better memories.

Not all media are the same

In humans, vision is our primary sense and the way we most readily assimilate information. It is also where we feel most comfortable and most accurate (even if looks do fool us often enough). If you use visual cues to help you learn, you will be boosting your comprehension and
retention potential.

Little and often improves concentration

Taking breaks is vital and we learn best when we learn in short chunks. Pace yourself; learn a bit at a time and then take your new knowledge or skills out for a spin. Reflect on it, practice it and compare it with your existing knowledge.

Context determines application

Where you learn can affect the impact the new knowledge has. We often forget information and skills we learn away from the relevant context for them, which is what makes on-the-job learning and action learning so powerful. If you can’t arrange that, then be sure to practise using your new knowledge as soon as you can in your workplace. This is one reason why, whenever I read something new and interesting on the way to running training or a seminar, I try to slip that information into my event. This means I re-process the information in a live environment and consolidate my memory of it.

Using crystallised intelligence to feed your fluid intelligence

Your reasoning and problem-solving skills are essential in interpreting new environments, while your breadth and depth of knowledge give you a foundation for insight. So to grow wisdom, you do need also to maintain fluid intelligence against its natural decline.

The secret is to constantly sort and organise your new knowledge into frameworks, patterns and models. This process will exercise and maintain your reasoning skills, while also consolidating your recall of the new knowledge. Model building is not just a tool for explaining to others but for deepening your own understanding. Creating mnemonics (memory aids) like acronyms and rhymes not only assists in memorising new knowledge, it also exercises your creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

One commonly understood tool that helps a lot is diagramming of information in the form of a mind map, spider diagram or hierarchy of information. This may not generate a model but it certainly helps you to both organise your knowledge and visualise it. That in turn lends itself well to spotting connections and discerning distinctions. These are the basis of deep perception and fresh insights, which are two of the hallmarks of wisdom.

Let’s take a look at one model of how we think, which will help understand not just how the brain works to deploy fluid intelligence but also serves to illustrate a model that does not represent reality but gives us a way to understand one aspect of it that is of interest.

In this model, we see five ways of thinking, of which the commonest, day-to-day mode is the lazy ‘click’ mode that spots an event and interprets it, click, according to learnt rules. It’s efficient, it’s quick and it’s often right. But not always. The intuitive click mode does not think about whether the rules or models it applies are appropriate, they just seem to fit well enough. 

It is your rigorous ‘bubble’ mode of thinking that bubbles away pondering all of the variables, trying make sense of the new information. For bubble to work, you need time, you need to be rested and alert and you need to be ready to concentrate.

But can you get the best of both worlds: careful consideration without the effort of concentrating? This is where your ‘sigh’ mode comes in. It works slowly, quietly and relentlessly in the background, assimilating everything and mulling it over. Sigh is responsible for spotting what may happen next, finding creative solutions, and reaching sound judgements. But sigh often speaks too quietly to hear, above the hubbub of click and bubble. This is why you often get your best insights in those quiet times, when sigh can make itself heard.

Now, you know and I know that these three modes are not bits of your brain. But the model helps us understand how we think and make choices. And in constructing, testing and refining models like this, you allow different thinking modes to collaborate and you put your fluid intelligence to work, maintaining its fitness.


Wisdom is not measurable and it is hard to define but it is certainly developable. And some of the most exciting developments that touch upon our field of training are central to this process, not least the fields of mindfulness and neuroscience. In particular, they can help in developing four of the seven pillars of wisdom: self-mastery, perception, evolution and judgement. I am enjoying watching wisdom develop in some of the people I work with. And, in return, I hope some of my clients are seeing wisdom grow in me. 

A fully referenced version of this article is available on request.


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