Project 2: Wisdom Research


Six research projects lead by University of Chicago faculty, in collaboration with scientists at other institutions, investigated big questions in the field that have been the greatest potential of influencing research, education, policy, and professions: What is the relationship between expertise and wisdom? How does experience increase wisdom? What is the relationship between cognitive, social and emotional processes in mediating wisdom? 

Project Descriptions

Read about the 6 core projects, publications, and presentations below. To watch summary videos of this work, watch the Wisdom Meetings 2014-2015 playlist!

Despite the importance of empathy in a clinical setting, physicians may experience difficulty empathizing with their patients. Although the reasons for this difficulty are likely complex and multifaceted, one possible explanation may be that physicians lack the cognitive and emotional resources to engage in empathic processing. Extended hours, overnight call duty, and rotating shifts are all characteristic of a physician's residency. This schedule can result in chronic and acute sleep deprivation in physicians and deplete their limited cognitive resources. In fact, sleep deprivation (Mazukiewicz et al., 2011) and insomnia (Vela-Bueno et al., 2008) are correlated with a lack of empathy in burnt-out physicians.

The goal of this project is to investigate the extent to which empathy changes in medical students with increasing expertise (years of medical school), contributions of individual traits and genetic differences to these changes, and the relationship between empathy and cognitive and affective abilities during the development of expertise and wisdom in the medical profession.

Economic expertise and economic wisdom are not the same thing. Wisdom requires going beyond the rational decision process of neoclassical economic theory. We examine how expertise changes previous findings such as the endowment effect (holding an asset makes it seem worth more irrationally) and how the manifestation of such biases changes with measures of wisdom (Berlin task etc). We predict that the bias effects are reduced differently for economic experts with wisdom measures predicting the difference. fMRI allows us to assess differences in neural activity between two equal experts differing in wisdom identifying brain mechanism differences due to wisdom.

Economic wisdom presumably reflects an ability to look beyond short-term gains, to be sensitive to social values, and to regulate affective responses and biases. Neoclassical economic theory envisions a world with infinite (economic) wisdom, where agents with well-defined preferences are assumed to make “optimal” decisions, albeit subject to resource and informational constraints. However, a plethora of empirical findings suggest otherwise: experiment after experiment, behavioral economists have demonstrated that neoclassical models are not adequate to describing observed behavior. The most important countercurrent to the “behavioral revolution” has been to point out that experimental findings might not have external validity in “real world” environments: that experience and/or expertise (whether gained through training or through selection) may, in certain situations, render real decisions much closer to the neoclassical paradigm.

A well-documented departure from the neoclassical paradigm is the endowment effect, a perceived increase in the value of a good once it enters an individual’s endowment (Thaler, 1980). On its face, this appears to be an affective bias in that the market value of a good is not changed simply by ownership. Researchers have offered multiple accounts of the processes behind the endowment effect: Morewedge et al. (2009) contends that ownership of the item drives its perceived value, whereas Knutson et al. (2008) find neural evidence (insula activation) for a loss aversion account. List (2004) instead proposes that market inexperience drives the endowment effect: he finds that experienced traders do not exhibit the endowment effect, whereas inexperienced subjects display a clear endowment effect. In essence, this suggests that market experience can increase economic wisdom by reducing an affective bias.

In the current study, we are pursuing the question of whether experience in a trading environment (an expertise in buying and selling) increases the apparent rationality of this approach. Moreover, we are investigating whether there are differences in the distribution of neural activity either reflecting local changes in amount of activity or neural network configuration as a function of increased economic wisdom due to trading experience. We have first replicated previous one-shot experimental results of List et al. using our repeated trading game protocol on a pilot sample of experienced vs. inexperienced subjects. This is important in order to be able to collect reliable measures of neural activity during price decisions about test objects. We recruited 20 experienced and 20 inexperienced subjects for fMRI scanning experiments who were matched on demographic characteristics. Data collection was completed in March 2013, and we are currently analyzing the behavioral and neural scanning data obtained from these experiments.

Our preliminary results suggest that the insula region is activated less in experienced vs. inexperienced subjects in response to offers below the subject’s stated willingness-to-pay (i.e. “low-ball” offers). The insula region is commonly activated in response to stimuli that evoke anger and pain. This finding is consistent with previous findings regarding insula activation as a neural correlate of the endowment effect and is consistent with a reduction in loss aversion that might explain the endowment effect. We are currently considering other analyses or testing more participants in order to strengthen the findings.

Research Team:Ali Hortacsu, John List, Raquel Cowell, Lester Tong, Kentaro Asai, Karen Ye    

A common intuition is greater wisdom comes with greater expertise. However, our project explores a case in which expertise may in fact have the opposite effect. Specifically, we find that using a less familiar, foreign language can lead to wiser decisions under some circumstances. It is reasonable to assume that the difficulty of using a foreign language would interfere with the process of decision-making. For instance, the added effort and cognitive load of using a foreign language could push people to rely more on automatic, emotional processes. Our novel theory assumes that the opposite is true: Use of a foreign language may lead to more systematic decision-making, thereby reducing well-known decision biases and leading to wiser choices. The use of a foreign language, may promote wiser decision-making (1) because a foreign language is less emotionally grounded, which reduces the involvement of emotional reactions in the decision, and (2) because it increases psychological distance, which allows people to focus on important elements of the decision.

We conduct experiments in many different countries testing many different native/foreign language pairs in the U.S., China, Korea, France, Israel, Japan, Spain, and Italy, and tested how and why using a foreign language impacts a variety of phenomena.

Making risk preferences more consistent.
A hallmark of wisdom is knowing how to manage risk and uncertainty (Nussbaum, 2001), as taking risks is beneficial in certain contexts, but not in others. While we would like to think that our willingness to take a risk depends on important features of the situation such as the probability of success or the magnitude of the potential gain vs. loss, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the way in which a problem is framed has a large impact on risk preferences. For instance, Kahneman & Tversky (1979) demonstrated that individuals tend to be risk seeking when problems are framed as losses but risk averse when they are framed as gains. This is often proposed to be a result of a strong emotional aversion to a sure loss and a strong emotional attraction to a sure gain. Using modified versions of Kahneman & Tversky’s “Asian Disease” problems, we have demonstrated that using a foreign language reduces, and in some cases eliminates this framing effect such that people’s risk preferences are much more consistent than those using a native tongue. This is a situation in which reducing the emotional impact of the situation through the use of a foreign language can lead to more systematic and consistent decision making.

Reducing loss aversion.
Most people would avoid an even bet of winning $13 or losing $10 because they anticipate the negative impact of a potential loss to outweigh the impact of an identical gain (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). Such loss aversion is partly driven by an emotional reaction: Patients with focal lesions in brain areas that regulate emotions are less likely to show it and more likely to take such positive expected value bets (Shiv, et. al, 2005). In one study, participants were presented with a series of bets in which they had an even chance of hypothetically winning or losing different amounts of money that varied in terms of how attractive they were. Critically, the potential gain was always larger than the potential loss. As predicted, we found that people using a foreign language accepted significantly more of these advantageous gambles than those using a native tongue. These studies support the idea that the reduced emotional impact of using a foreign language removed some of the fear associated with potential losses, allowing individuals to take smart risks.

Making utilitarian moral decisions.
Would you be willing to kill one man to save five? Most individuals say no – the prospect of sacrificing one person for the greater good is emotionally aversive. While there is no clearly right or wrong answer to this difficult ethical dilemma, we find that using a foreign language significantly increases the likelihood of making the utilitarian decision. We presented participants with the classic “footbridge” dilemma (Thompson, 1985), which asks whether you would be willing to push a heavy man in front of a train to stop it from running over five people tied to a track. While only a small minority of individuals using a native language chose to take this utilitarian action, approximately twice as many people using a foreign language were willing to sacrifice one to save five. We suggest that the emotional distance afforded by using a foreign language frees people to engage in a more cost-benefit analysis when faced with highly emotional moral dilemmas.

Research Team:Boaz Keysar, Albert Costa, Sayuri Hayakawa, Sheila Sernoff, Andrea Wandrey, Ryan Krocker, Sophie Holtzmann, Melina De Bona, Hongyi Ju, Maria Senf, Angelika Labno, Jessica Dabski, Anna Momot, Rachel Maniquis, Natalia Borowczyk, Aimee Voisard, Ana Gonzalez, Reuben McCreanor


Hayakawa, S., (2014, Mar.). Linguistic Expertise, Insight and Wisdom. Presentation at the annual Wisdom Research Forum, Chicago, IL. 

Hayakawa, S., Keysar, B., & An, S. (2013, Nov.). The effect of using a foreign language on delaying gratification. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, Toronto, Canada.

Keysar, B. (2013, Apr. 23). Colloquium. Making Decisions in a Foreign Language. Yeshiva University, New York.

Keysar, B. (2013, Feb. 22). Colloquium. Making Decisions in a Foreign Language. The Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, University of California at Berkeley.


Costa, A., Foucart, A., Hayakawa, S., Aparici, M., Apestguia, J, Heafner, J, & Keysar, B. (2014). Your Morals Depend on your Language. PLoS ONE.

Graduate Seminars

Keysar, B. (2014, Winter Quarter). Wisdom graduate seminar: Multilingualism and Cognition. Students from the Psychology PhD Program, the MAPSS graduate program, and the undergraduate program participated. 

Course Abstract:In this seminar we evaluated the way that speaking more than one language affects the way you think and solve problems. We discussed the way bilingualism affects perspective taking and creativity and how bilingualism affects the ability to inhibit and control information. We also learned about how using a foreign language affects decision-making, the resolution of moral dilemma and ethical behavior more generally. Graduate students presented their research projects on linguistic expertise and its relation to wisdom.

Keysar, B. (2013, Winter Quarter). Wisdom graduate seminar: The Psychology of Risk: Practical Wisdom. Students from the Psychology Ph.D. program, Booth School of Business Ph.D. program, the MAPSS graduate program, and the law school. 

Course Abstract:Risk is involved in almost every aspect of our lives. Yet, our understanding of how risk affects our behavior and decision-making is rudimentary and often wrong. In this seminar, we will consider the literature on the psychology of risk in an attempt to develop a deeper appreciation of the role that risk plays in the lives of individuals as well as public policy. We will consider questions such as: How do people perceive risk? How do they assess it? What is the role of emotion in risk perception? What determines people’s attitude towards taking risks, and what function does it play in everyday behavior? Under what conditions do people choose to either take or avoid risks? What is the role of risk perception and attitudes in important domains such as medical decision-making and legal outcomes? Finally, we will evaluate the possibility of practical wisdom in the face of risk: We will consider how risk could be measured and what implications the psychology of risk has for increasing wisdom in policy-making.


Keysar, B. et al. (2013, July 10). Education outreach. Hosted a group of high-school students who are interested in exploring college options out of the Lurie Children’s Hospital- Uptown Clinic. We provided them with a workshop on our Wisdom research.

Keysar, B. (2014). The wisdom of arguing with success: How to evaluate performance with the benefit of ignorance


The New York Times:
Our Moral Tongue: Moral Judgments Depend on What Language We’re Speaking, June 20, 2014.

NPR Radio:
Your Morals Depend on Language, June 20, 2014.

Scientific American:
In a Foreign Language, “Killing 1 to Save 5” May Be More Permissible: Language shapes our moral judgments, May 20, 2014.

Thinking in a Foreign Language Could Sway Your Moral Judgments, May 19, 2014.

The Economist:
Gained in translation: When moral dilemmas are posed in a foreign language, people become more coolly utilitarian, May 17, 2014.

The Wall Street Journal:
Moral Decisions May Depend on Language: People Make More Pragmatic Decisions in Languages Other Than Their Native Tongue, May 12, 2014.

Agora Vox Italia:
Sacrificare una persona per salvarne cinque? Dipende dalla lingua, May 7, 2014.

Epoch Times:
Do Morals Shift When We Use a Foreign Language?, May 6, 2014.

United Academics Magazine:
Using A Foreign Language Influences Your Sense of Morality, May 5, 2014. 

UChicago News:
Using a Foreign Language Changes Moral Decisions, April 30, 2014.

Times LIVE:
Who you save depends on which language you're asked in, April 29, 2014.

Discover Magazine:
Using a Foreign Language Could Affect Moral Judgment, April 29, 2014.

New Kerala (India):
Moral decisions influenced by language?, April 29, 2014.

Medical Express:
Using a foreign language changes moral decisions, April 28, 2014.

Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast, March 6, 2014.

The British Psychological Society:
Second Languages and moral judgment, December 5, 2013.

Scientific American:
How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions, July 3, 2012.

Contemporary scholarly efforts to delineate wisdom have very frequently identified multiple cognitive capacities that seem to be combined in a wise understanding or a wise ethical judgment. These cognitive capacities that contribute to wisdom have included a tolerance for ambiguity, a self-reflective awareness, and the ability to introduce a fresh perspective or new piece of information that gives coherence to seemingly disconnected facts (“insight”). The “Linguistic Reflection in Wisdom” Project explores the relationships among these components of wisdom from the perspective of language use, both verbal and written. First, the project focuses on the ability to use and interpret figurative language—especially metaphor—and this ability’s potential contribution to conceptual change that generates broader insights. Second, the project explores implications of the observation that our human self-awareness as persons hinges on the capacity of the self to carry on an inner dialogue, a dialogue with the self, and investigates how this inner dialogue may contribute to self-reflective awareness. Methodologically, the project proposes that the contributions of metaphorical language and inner dialogue to the components of wisdom may be investigated both through the performance of experimental tasks in a psychology laboratory and through the analysis of specific historical case studies. In addition to its contribution to wisdom research, the project therefore seeks to make a broader methodological contribution to discussions between the psychological and historical disciplines.

Metaphors make comparisons and draw distinctions that depend on shared social experience in order to convey knowledge. To say “the heart is a pump” requires a society that both uses mechanical pumps and possesses a basic understanding of the human circulatory system. But metaphors do far more that draw the relatively straightforward comparisons illustrated by this simple example. First, metaphors have a capacity for surprise. Through daring comparisons they convey new ways of looking at things. Second, metaphors are not restricted to single, unitary meanings. They frequently convey multiple comparisons, and the hearers of the metaphor frequently attribute additional comparisons that cascade far beyond any original intent of the metaphor’s first employment. In both of these ways, through the evocation of new ideas and through the imaginative development of multiple layers of meaning, metaphors are a crucial engine for social and personal transformation. Moreover, the use of novel metaphors (as distinguished from idiomatic speech such as “you hit the nail on the head”) may lead to the increased cognitive processing associated with insight. Psychological researchers associated with the project have developed paradigms for investigating whether metaphor processing changes our cognitive style of engaging information; alters our ability to take another person's perspective during a conversation; and may lead to an increase in tolerance for ambiguity. As a complement to our laboratory studies, historians engaged in the project are working on historical examples of metaphors and other forms of figurative language that have focused the attention of historical actors on previously unconsidered dimensions of situations and encouraged them to contrast these different perspectives with one another. Differently put, how has figurative language been used in the past to disrupt “conventional wisdom” and prompt fresh insight?

Dialogue with the Self 
What is the purpose of dialogue, and how does it work? In the contemporary academy, the central purpose of dialogue is to challenge presuppositions through serious engagement with other, differing points of view. Dialogue is contrasting speech; it exposes or destabilizes comfortably unexamined ideas. As literary critic Amanda Anderson has put it, dialogue aggravates our awareness of cultural divergence and hones our capacity for transformative intercultural encounters. On this model, dialogue is thwarted whenever an opposing view is made wholly explainable within the terms of my own view. We pursue dialogue in order to be changed by encounter with the other. And we regard this transformation of our most thoroughly internalized ideas and customs as a good thing, a labor of intellectual emancipation.

In the Western philosophical and religious traditions, the figure of Socrates has connected such dialogue with the search for wisdom. The exchanges between questioner and respondent deepen and transform thought. At the same time, dialogue also exerts a moral discipline on the interlocutors, who, in order to progress, must constantly maintain accord, mutual respect, honesty, and a willingness to change in light of persuasive evidence. As the historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot has remarked, dialogue is “a combat, amicable yet real.”

Given the close relationship between dialogue and processes of intellectual and moral transformation, an integral feature of dialogue in the West has been the concept and practice of “interior dialogue” or dialogue with the self. On this model, the quest for wisdom requires a capacity to distance the self from the self in order to pursue self-questioning, self-criticism, and self-examination. Such concepts as meditation, conscience, “mindfulness,” and insight presuppose this capacity for interior dialogue. And both psychological researchers and historians have explored the ways in which habitual practices such as self-reflective writing or the reading of fiction deepen and extend this capacity for self-examination. But, over the centuries, the exponents of interior dialogue have consistently warned that the pursuit of self-knowledge is beset by the hazard of self-deception. Those who live (and talk) within themselves may well be pursuing not self-knowledge but self-deception, illusions instead of more honest perceptions of self and society. These questions about dialogue, interior dialogue, wisdom, and illusion are the subject of a consultation that the “Linguistic Reflection in Wisdom” project is currently planning for the spring of 2015. Titled “Dialogue with the Self: The Quest for Wisdom and the Hazard of Self-Deception,” the consultation will include both historians and psychologists engaged in this dimension of wisdom research.

Research Team: Anne Henly, W. Clark Gilpin, Alison Trude, Kiehlor Mack


Gilpin, W.C. (2014, Apr. 10-12).  After Great Pain:’ Emily Dickinson’s Civil War, Jepson Colloquium, 2014: Leading Culture Forward, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, VA.

Gilpin, W.C. (2014, Nov. 22-25). Writers and Artists as Agents of Cultural Change, Panel at the American Academy of Religion, Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA.


Gilpin, W.C. Modern Modes of Wisdom. Book manuscript in progress.

The goal of Project V is to understand the basic mechanisms that underlie the development of insight in wisdom. Although there are examples of wise decisions arising from contemplation and reflection, and this may in fact be the typical way in which wise decisions and advice are produced, there are occasions that people recognize as wise insights. An insight can be thought of as a sudden understanding of a problem or situation that is not simply the result of a protracted session of reflection. Often insights emerge after a period of incubation in which no specific conscious thought is given to a problem that much earlier was struggled with and seemed too difficult to solve. In this way, insights seem to arrive without heralding or immediate cognitive activity, which makes understanding the nature of insight and cognitive creativity an interesting challenge. Further, it has been reported that insights seem to be potentiated by sleep (Wagner et al., 2004). If the failure to solve a problem is remediated by a subsequent period of disattention or incubation, the potential for insight seems to be increased further by “sleeping on it.”

This project is directed at understanding this process of arriving at an insight and how different kinds of experiences may potentiate such cognitive creativity. In part this project asks, what kinds of experiences can lead to the broader development of wisdom in solving problems? Second, how can the effects of those experiences become durable so that they can aggregate over time? The kinds of experiences people have in their lives that lead to wisdom are surely rich and complex and may be difficult to study as they naturally occur. The present project seeks to investigate giving people such experiences under controlled circumstances. As such, these experiences would then be repeatable and could be provided to almost anyone who could then benefit from them. However, we also recognize that the effects of such experiences may not be immediate; or having measured an immediate effect, the weight of subsequent experiences during the day may countermand some of these effects. The present project is intended to investigate how such experiences can become resistant to such adverse changes allowing the aggregation of wisdom-relevant experiences over time.

Wisdom is often marked or recognized within society as wise decisions and solutions to problems as well as wise advice. When confronted with any truly difficult problem, there are two approaches that can be taken. The first is to evaluate the problem and decide that it is too difficult to be solved and leave it to someone else or put off dealing with it. The second is to attempt to solve the problem. In the case of truly challenging problems, the second path is seldom easy. Different solutions and approaches may be considered and, upon analysis and reflection, rejected. If the attempts continue, typically people may put aside the problem for a time and come back to it later. And later, often after sleeping on it, a new idea for a solution comes to mind. In other words, failures to solve a problem, followed by an incubation period of not thinking about the problem, often a period that includes sleep (Wagner et al., 2004), can result into insight into a solution.

Mechanisms behind the development of insight 
Consider a similar situation of trying to think of a word, and feeling it is on the “tip of your tongue”, but not accessible. You can think of synonyms for the word, but none are correct. You can think of similar words, related concepts, similar sounding words, but the answer frustratingly eludes you. After giving up, after a time, perhaps the next morning, the correct searched-for word pops into your head. In some respects, this is much like the notion of insight (Yaniv & Meyer, 1987). In considering the similarity between the two situations, there are two general mechanisms that may be at work in insight. The first mechanism appears to play a role in reducing the mental clutter of failed attempts to solve a problem. Every time we think about something, that experience gets transiently recorded in memory. If the thought is in the context of a problem and several such thoughts or ideas occur in that context, these thoughts may crowd out new ideas and distract from finding new ideas and solutions. Thus, one important aspect of the development of insight is the need to reduce the mental clutter of failed attempts to solve a problem since this clutter can interfere with finding the right solution.

A second mechanism depends on making new connections or associations between things that were previously not connected mentally. One way of achieving this is likely reflection (actively and cognitively seeking to find new perspectives, angles, or conceptualizations of a problem), and reflection approached with humility rather than with strongly preconceived ideas. Reflection. Work on problem solving has often suggested that understanding the nature of a problem is the first step to solution. This means classifying a problem in a way that places it in mental proximity to other similar problems that have been solved so as to try similar solutions. Such explicit reflection may lead to tentative, perhaps unconscious connections between different mental representations (e.g., Siegler, 2000). Some of our previous work on problem solving has demonstrated that children often display evidence of understanding a problem’s complexity, revealed in how they gesture about a problem, before they can actually solve it and explain the solution (Goldin-Meadow et al., 1993). The suggestion is that there are mental representations that are active somehow, but the connections are not clearly made and perhaps some period of incubation is required, especially if that period includes sleep (Wagner et al., 2004).

Effects of sleep on insight and cognitive creativity 
Sleep has been demonstrated to have two effects on learning and memory. Both effects lead to more robust learning as we have previously demonstrated (Fenn et al. 2003) such that what is learned can be mentally available for months (Schwab et al., 1985). We have demonstrated that one effect of sleep on learning is to reduce interference that would cause forgetting of what is learned (Brawn et al., 2013). The second effect is to increase the formation of new associations or mental connections that allow thinking about one thing to lead to thinking about other things (Dumay & Gaskell, 2007). In other words, weak and unconscious mental connections between ideas are strengthened during sleep and new connections formed so they can be explicitly used when awake in problem solving. These two mechanisms are quite different from the kinds of explanations used to account for insight such as invocation of a kind of specialized metaphor processor (e.g., Kounios & Jung-Beeman, 2009). We are currently investigating how these two effects of sleep may be important in using prior experience to develop insight and increase cognitive creativity. We are also exploring the kinds of experiences that can potentiate such insights as well as investigating individual differences that may reflect human characteristics that are important for making use of such experiences and for sleep to produce benefits from the experiences.

We are collaborating with researchers in the Psychology laboratory of Professor Qinglin Zhang at Southwest University in China to investigate cognitive creativity and insight problem solving. This research is examining the neural mechanisms involved in the use of one set of experiences in solving novel scientific and technical problems (Tong et al., 2013). In addition, we are exploring cultural differences and experiential differences in learning and the neural mechanisms that mediate this learning. We are also exploring how sleep may increase the benefits of incubation.

Brawn, T., Nusbaum, H. C., & Margoliash, D. (2013). Sleep consolidation of interfering auditory memories in starlings. Psychological Science. Published online 22 February 2013 DOI:10.1177/0956797612457391 Dumay, N. & Gaskell, M. G. (2007). Sleep-associated changes in the mental representation of spoken words.  Psychological Science, 18, 35-39.

Duncker, K. (1945). On problem solving.  Psychological Monographs 58. American Psychological Association.

Fenn, K. M., Nusbaum, H. C., & Margoliash, D. (2003). Consolidation during sleep of perceptual learning of spoken language.  Nature, 425, 614-616. 

Goldin-Meadow, S., Nusbaum, H. C., Garber, P., & Breckinridge Church, R. (1993). Transitions in learning: Evidence for simultaneously activated strategies.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 19, 92-107. 

Kounios, J., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2009). Aha! The cognitive neuroscience of insight. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 210-216.

Schwab, E. C., Nusbaum, H. C., & Pisoni, D. B. (1985). Effects of training on the perception of synthetic speech.  Human Factors, 27, 395-408. 

Tong Dandan, Li Wenfu, Dai Tianen, Howard C. Nusbaum, Qiu Jiang, Zhang Qinglin. (2013). Brain mechanisms of valuable scientific problem finding inspired by heuristic knowledge. Experimental Brain Research 228:4, 437-443. 

Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., Verleger, R., & Born J. (2004). Sleep inspires insight. Nature, 427, 352-355.

Yaniv, I., & Meyer, D. E. (1987). Activation and metacognition of inaccessible stored information: Potential bases for incubation effects in problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 13, 187-205. 

Research Team: Howard Nusbaum, Peter Hu, Shannon Heald


Dandan, T., Wenfu, L., Tianen, D., Nusbaum, H.C., Jiang, Q., & Qinglin. Z. (2013). Brain mechanisms of valuable scientific problem finding inspired by heuristic knowledge. Experimental Brain Research 228:4, 437-443. 

Wisdom is often thought of as a special form of knowledge and judgment that people acquire over time through experience. Our project studies whether specific practices might facilitate and enhance the acquisition of wisdom. Since a common assumption is that wisdom is a mental phenomenon, we are interested not only in the effect of mental practices on wisdom, but also in practices that involve the body. Many spiritual and philosophical traditions emphasize the connection between mind and body suggesting that wisdom depends on mastering both because they enhance one's mental and intellectual abilities, and in doing so may lead to a deeper understanding of the world. This conception has been significant not only in religious and meditative practices, but also in sports and performing arts, where the road to mastery has served as a general model for enhanced learning and achieving a state of well-being.

Our research focuses on ways in which mental and somatic practices interact with emotional and cognitive domains to contribute to the advancement of human wisdom. At the heart of these practices lies a non-dual conception of the relationship between body and mind, involving exercises in which bodily and mental states are intertwined. As new developments in molecular biology and neuroscience have increasingly undermined a clear distinction between mental and chemical operations as well as cognitive and physiological processes, the notions of "grounded" and "embodied" cognition and learning have contributed to a new area in cognitive science. In addition, mind-body integration as a source of mental health has become central to therapeutic traditions that focus on psychosomatic processes have been applied in conditions ranging from social misbehavior and psychic disorders. Moreover, recent research suggests that mind-body states which maintain a homeostasis between cognitive control and autonomic activity facilitate not only learning, but also improve cognition, emotion, and performance, such as perceptual discrimination and attention.

Practice and experience 
Wisdom is anecdotally associated with old age, but not all elders are wise. What then are the life experiences that lead to wisdom? Using a cross-sectional questionnaire measuring cognitive, reflective, and affective wisdom (Ardelt, 2004) to practitioners of mediation, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and classical ballet, we found that expertise, as measured by years of experience, was positively associated with wisdom for meditation and classical ballet, but not for the Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais Method. While the finding for meditation is in accord with its traditional role in cultivating wisdom and current research into the positive role of meditation on cognitive and affective processes (Arch & Craske, 2006; Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, 2008), the finding for ballet was surprising and has led us to hypothesize that expert ballet dancers may be wiser than their novice counterparts due to increased kinesthetic and somatic sensitivity.

Somatic markers of wise decision making 
If ballet expertise is associated with wisdom, ballet dancers may possess an increased sensitivity to signals from the body that leads to better decision making. Previous evidence indicates that ballet dancers form and rely on increased body awareness to improve physical performance (Jola, Davis, & Haggard, 2011). But does this increased body sense correspond to increased sensitivity to somatic markers (Damasio, 1996) that affect decision-making? Given the pilot data that show expert ballet dancers as “wiser” than less experienced dancers, we are investigating whether this effect is reproducible in a sample of expert compared to novice ballet dancers, and whether this difference may be linked to increased somatic sensitivity and corresponding decision-making in a task that relies on somatic markers for optimal performance. Preliminary evidence suggests this may be the case as experts achieve optimal and sustained performance on average, more quickly than do novices.

Compassion, risk tolerance, trust 
In several studies we look at components and antecedents of wisdom, such as compassion, risk tolerance, and trust. Since compassion is one component of wisdom (Meeks & Jeste, 2009), recent research indicates that compassion training increases positive affect toward others, promotes prosocial behavior, and strengthens personal resources (Klimecki, Leiberg, Lamm, & Singer, 2013; Leiberg, Klimecki, & Singer, 2011; Fredrickson et al., 2008). We have found however that by simply exposing individuals to compassion-based language, concern for others’ distress is increased, with a simultaneous decrease in concern for personal distress. This provides evidence that interpersonal sensitivity is easily induced, while drawing attention to the importance of treating with skepticism claims made about the effects of compassion training on pro-social behavior. 

Since another important aspect of wisdom is knowing how to manage risk and uncertainty, we are looking at specific populations who are involved in risk management, measuring for example, the physiology and behavior of stunt professionals who are actively engaging in high risk physical activity. Stunt professionals can provide valuable insight into the nature of managing physical risks in comparison to non-physical risk such as financial risk.

Meditation and Mindfulness 
A recent proliferation in meditation and mindfulness research has led to the application of this ancient practice across business, education, and even military training, though its efficacy has not been rigorously examined. In several studies, we are measuring the effects of different forms of meditation practice in various domains. In one study, we compare the effect of open monitoring and focused-attention meditation on insight. In another study, we are measuring the effects of mindfulness training on the well-being and wisdom of professionals in the corporate world. 

Research Team: Berthold Hoeckner, Howard Nusbaum, Patrick Williams, Greg Poljacik, Heather Lumdsen Harden, Carly Kontra, Laurel Sarfan, Greg Norman, Liz Hopkins.


Williams, P.B., Poljacik, G., Decety, J., & Nusbaum, H.C. (2014, June). Compassion language priming leads to increased sensitivity to others’ pain. 2014 Mind and Life Institute Summer Research Institute, Garrison, NY. 

Williams, P.B., Kontra, C., Harden, H.L., Nusbaum, H.C., & Hoeckner, B. (2014, May). The association between wisdom and practice. Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL. 

Williams, P.B., Kontra, C., Harden, H.L., Nusbaum, H.C., & Hoeckner, B. (2014, Mar. 13). The association between wisdom and practice. The University of Chicago Wisdom Research Forum, Chicago, IL.

Hoeckner, B. (2014, Winter Quarter). Cinematic representations of the relationships between affective trust, system trust, and economic wisdom. Presentation to the Humanities Visiting Committee, Chicago, IL.

Hoeckner, B. (2014, Spring Quarter).  Film, Music, Affective Economies. International Conference "Sound and Affect", SUNY Stony Brook, New York; also as a colloquium at the University of Minnesota.



Costa, A., Foucart, A., Hayakawa, S., Aparici, M., Apestguia, J, Heafner, J, & Keysar, B. (2014). Your Morals Depend on your Language. PLoS One, 9(4): e94842. [link]

Costa, A & Keysar, B. (2014, June 20) Your morals depend on language [Interview]. Retrieved from

Dandan, T., Wenfu, L., Tianen, D., Nusbaum, H.C., Jiang, Q., & Qinglin. Z. (2013). Brain mechanisms of valuable scientific problem finding inspired by heuristic knowledge. Experimental Brain Research 228:4, 437-443. [link]

Decety, J. (2014). Social neuroscience meets philosophy: suffering, empathy, and moral cognition. In N. Palpan and R. M. Green (Eds), Suffering and Bioethics (pp. 89-105). New York: Oxford University Press. [link]

Decety, J. (2014). The neuroevolution of empathy and caring for others: Why it matters for morality. In J. Decety and Y. Christen (Eds). New Frontiers in Social Neuroscience (pp. 127-151). New York: Springer. [link]

Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(7), 337-339. [link]

Decety, J., Smith, K., Norman, G. J., & Halpern, J. (2014). A social neuroscience perspective on clinical empathy. World Psychiatry[link]

Gilpin, W.C. Modern Modes of Wisdom. Book manuscript in progress. (Chapters will include: I. Insight, II. Inner Dialogue, III. Metaphor, IV. Anthropomorphism, V. Irony, and Epilogue: Wisdom in a Secular Age.)

Gleichgerrcht, E., & Decety, J. (2013). Empathy in clinical practice: How individual dispositions, gender, and experience moderate empathic concern, burnout and emotional distress in physicians. PLoS ONE, 8(4): e61526. [link]

Gleichgerrcht, E., & Decety, J. (2014). The relationship between different facets of empathy, pain perception and compassion fatigue among physicians. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, epub ahead of print. [link]

Williams, P.B., Poljacik, G., Decety, J., & Nusbaum, H.C. (2014, June). Compassion language priming leads to increased sensitivity to others' pain. 2014 Mind and Life Institute Summer Research Institute, Garrison, NY.  

Williams, P.B., Kontra, C., Harden, H.L., Nusbaum, H.C., & Hoeckner, B. (2014, May). The association between wisdom and practice. Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL. 

Yoder, K. J., & Decety, J. (2014). The good, the bad, and the just: Justice sensitivity predicts neural response during moral evaluation of actions performed by others. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(12), 4161-4166. [link]

Research Projects