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Elkhonon Goldberg: The Wisdom Paradox:
how your mind can grow stronger as your brain grows older
(Gotham Books: 2005)


“As young people, we are driven by the lust for the unknown, for forward motion. We dare. The folkloric cliché is that as we age, we yearn for stability. Does ‘stability’ inevitably equal ‘stagnation’? Are age-associated mental changes all losses, or are there some gains? As I am surveying introspectively my own mental landscape...what strikes me the most...is that if there is a change, it cannot be captured in quantitative comparisons. On balance, my mind is neither weaker nor stronger than it was decades ago. It is different. What used to be the subject of involved problem-solving has now become more akin to pattern recognition. I am not nearly as good at laborious, grinding, focused mental computations; but then again I do not experience the need to resort to them nearly so often.... What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work, I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.... As I am trying to solve a thorny problem, a seemingly distant association often pops up like a deux ex machina, unrelated at first glance, but in the end offering a marvellously effective solution to the problem at hand. Things that in the past were separate now reveal their connections. This, too, happens effortlessly, by itself, while I experience myself more as a passive recipient of a mental windfall than as an active, straining agent of my mental life.... Then there is something else, even more profound, almost too good to admit: the feeling of being in control of my life.”
(Goldberg, pp.8-9)

When I studied cognitive science, at the turn of the eighties, the most solid findings by far came from neurology - the so-called “deficit studies” which relied on correlating behavioural deficits with brain damage in specific regions - whilst the most biologically-attuned area of study was clearly developmental psychology. Still, way back when, such theorizing as neurobiology offered tended to be modestly functional, leaving the more chancy realms to psychology...or even (in extremis) philosophy. How times have changed, eh?

The advent of a wide range of fresh neuro-imaging techniques has seemingly invigorated the imagination of whole generations of workers in the new neurosciences, many of whom now chance their hands in theorizing areas traditionally dismissed as “unscientific”. And, interestingly, in this area they are consciously following in the tradition of one of the greats of both developmental psychology and neurology; Vygotsky’s collaborator, the inspiration of Oliver Sacks and (most relevantly here) the mentor of Elkhonon Goldberg, the great A.R. Luria...

And so, it is perhaps not surprising that Goldberg himself should most recently attempt to tackle that most valued yet elusive of human attributes, wisdom, since he had already revolutionized the study of the most human brain region of them all, the prefrontal cortex, as well as that of hemispheric specialization. But, as he argues here, firstly our conception of wisdom needs to be rendered more approachable, less ineffable, and - as always - his proposals are both cogent and useful:


“It has always been accepted that of all the mental powers, wisdom is the most coveted: ‘Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom’ (Proverbs 4:9). But how? And what exactly is it? ‘Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness,’ wrote Sophocles in Antigone. Psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Kevin Rathunde concluded that among ‘concepts relating to human behavior’ wisdom has attracted the most enduring interest throughout the millennia of recorded history. They further say that, although highly intuitive, the concept of ‘wisdom’ has been infused with a certain continuity of meaning throughout more than twenty-five centuries...as the fusion of the intellectual and moral, spiritual and practical dimensions. But...‘to understand wisdom fully and correctly probably requires more wisdom than any of us have,’ says Robert Sternberg. A noted psychologist and a distinguished student of the subject, he should know.... [Nonetheless,] suppose that genius is an extreme form of talent, and that wisdom is an extreme form of expertise or competence. Or, to turn it around, talent is genius on a human scale; and competence is wisdom on a human scale.... With this approach, we undoubtedly take something away from both genius and wisdom...but a measure of clarity will be introduced, amounting to a worthwhile trade-off. And, by demystifying them we make them amenable to an examination which is at least somewhat scientific and not entirely poetic.”
(Goldberg, pp.74-8)

“Suppose we define competence through the ability to relate the new to the old. Competence is a particular ability to recognize the similarities between seemingly new problems and previously solved problems. This, in turn, implies that a competent person has at his or her disposal a vast collection of mental representations, each capturing the essence of a wide range of specific situations and of the most effective actions associated with these situations.... [Furthermore,] both the formal definitions of, and the common-sense intuitions about, competence and its supreme manifestation wisdom emphasize not only a deep insight into the nature of things, but also - and even more so - a keen understanding of what action needs to be taken to change them.”
(Goldberg, p.79)

However, whilst Goldberg’s strategy here may be a useful one, he clearly states that it does not encompass the whole of wisdom as traditionally-conceived - merely a crucial component of same, which also happens to be approachable via current neuroscience. On this point, nonetheless, I feel inclined to disagree, as it is arguable that Goldberg is underestimating his own work here, since the mechanism he proposes to account for wisdom’s cognitive approach can also, to my mind at least, encompass the broader fields of affect, ethical decision-making and aesthetic judgement which he explicitly claims are not covered by his hypothesis.


“With age, the number of real-life cognitive tasks requiring a painfully effortful, deliberate creation of new mental constructs seems to be diminishing. Instead, problem-solving (in the broadest sense) takes increasingly the form of pattern recognition. This means that with age we accumulate an increasing number of cognitive templates. Consequently, a growing number of future cognitive challenges is likely to be relatively readily covered by a pre-existing template, or will require only a slight modification of a previously formed mental template. Increasingly, decision-making takes the form of pattern recognition rather than problem-solving. As the work of Herbert Simon and others has shown, pattern recognition is the most powerful mechanism of successful cognition. [And] the passage from problem-solving to pattern recognition changes the way different parts of the brain contribute to the process. Firstly, cognition becomes more exclusively neocortical in nature, and increasingly independent of subcortical machinery, and of the machinery contained in the old cortex. Secondly, the balance of our use of the two hemispheres of the brain shifts...[towards] an increasing reliance on the left cerebral hemisphere.”
(Goldberg, p.20)

It is also important not to hold to to rigid a notion of what “pattern-recognition” may consist of, as the “templates” Goldberg discusses are typically used in combination...particularly when sufficient are present that we can begin to speak of wisdom. So, rather than simple pattern-matching, the resulting sense of understanding typically draws upon a variety of patterns - in some of their aspects - and wisdom consists of the ability to both sense such partial “matches”, and to accurately judge - based upon even more broad patterns - how they are likely to be interacting in this particular case. Because this is hardly a simple one-dimensional process and - as I argued earlier - it seems likely that this model might also apply to those aspects of wisdom which, traditionally, are seen as less amenable to rational analysis.

Another valuable feature of this book is that, in order to properly explain the neurological bases of his argument, Goldberg provides us with an admirable overview of contemporary understandings of the brain functions which concern us the most, and the results may come as a shock to many who adhere to simplistic and narrowly “modular” theories of  evolutionary psychology, as these are now - except re older/input regions - widely regarded as falsified by current work on a whole variety of fronts. But, the result is hardly any kind of “blank slate”, as Goldberg makes clear...rather, it is confirmation that it is developmental psychology - rather than the fashionably A.I.-obsessed versions of cognitive science - which was on the right track all along...


“The brain comes pre-wired for certain kinds of pattern recognition, but not for others.... How can this be done? Evolution solved the problem through judicious application of the principle ‘less is more.’ The ‘old’ subcortical structures are preloaded with hardwired information representing the ‘wisdom of the phylum,’ and so are the cortical regions directly involved in processing sensory inputs: vision, hearing, touch. Motor cortex is also to a large degree ‘pre-wired.’ But...in a seemingly paradoxical way, the more advanced certain cortical regions are, and the more recently they developed in evolution, the [more]...their processing power is accomplished increasingly by the ability to forge their own ‘software’...in the form of increasingly complex attractors...endowing these new brain regions with an open-ended capacity to deal with complexity of any nature.... This leads to a conclusion that is quite profound: the evolution of the brain is dominated by one grand theme, a gradual transition from a ‘hardwired’ to an ‘open-ended-open-minded’ design. As a result, the functional organization of the most advanced heteromodal association cortex does not resemble a quilt consisting of little regions each in charge of its own narrow function. To use the technical parlance of neuroscience, it is not modular. Rather, it is highly interactive and distributed...exactly what one would expect as an ‘emergent property’ in a self-organizing brain.”
(Goldberg, pp.104-5)

“In neuroscientific literature, the cognitive templates that enable us to engage in pattern recognition are often called attractors.... Aunique property of an attractor is that a very broad range of inputs will activate the same neural constellation, the attractor, automatically and easily. In a nutshell, this is the mechanism of pattern recognition. I believe that those of us who have been able to form a large number of such cognitive templates, each capturing the essence of a large number of pertinent experiences, have acquired ‘wisdom’, or at least a crucial ingredient thereof.”
(Goldberg, pp.20-1)

“Readers of this book might be curious about the relationship between an attractor and a module. The term module was popular in cognitive science in the 1980s and 1990s, and still remains popular in some circles.... But, is an attractor really a module in disguise? ...The answer to that is a resounding ‘No.’ A module is presumed to be innate. An attractor is emergent. A module is supposed to be functionally encapsulated. Numerous attractors share the same neural components. A module is supposed to be structurally encapsulated. An attractor can be, and probably more often than not is, distributed across a vast territory of cortical areas.... This, in a nutshell, is the mechanism of generic memory.”
(Goldberg, pp.146-8)

This is to pose the issue in admirably clear terms - and, to (properly) dismiss such excessively “modular” approaches as the last gasp of an ill-conceived mechanistic approach to brain function. However, this does not (at all) imply that Goldberg is susceptible to wooly versions of “holism”, in any shape or form. Indeed, no sooner has he dismissed the mechanists, than he makes clear the difference between a rigorously-defined developmental emergent, and what passes for thought in “new age” circles, clearly preferring William James’ jaundiced understanding to the endeavours of those who prefer to flatter (and fool) themselves...


“We have already established that the phenomenon of wisdom, with all its complexity, cannot merely be reduced to the capacity for high-level pattern recognition. But we have also established that such pattern-recognition capacity comprises a very important element of wisdom, which implies that a person endowed with wisdom has the ability to recognize an unusually large number of patterns, each encompassing a whole class of important situations.... The patterns that enable us to find quick solutions to a wide range of problems are generic memories...[which] accumulate with age. Also accumulating with age is the facility for intuitive decision-making. Intuition is often understood as an antithesis to analytic decision-making, as something inherently nonanalytic or preanalytic. But in reality, intuition is the condensation of vast prior analytic experience; it is analysis compressed and crystallized. In effect, then, intuitive decision-making is postanalytic, rather than preanalytic or nonanalytic.... Just as the amygdala contains neural condensations embodying the phyletic wisdom that developed over millions of years, the neocortex contains [those] developed through the lifespan...in the neural forms of the attractors discussed before....The intuitive decision-making of an expert bypasses orderly, logical steps precisely because it is a condensation of extensive use of such orderly, logical steps in the past. It is the luxury of mental economy conferred by vast prior experience.”
(Goldberg, pp.149-52)

“A lazy, untrained, and ‘unpatterned’ mind is sometimes seduced by the apparent ease and effortless nature of ‘postanalytic’ decision-making, and is tempted to emulate it. Far from being postanalytic, such a pathetic display will most assuredly be ‘fake analytic.’ A recently fashionable educational trend teaching grade school and high school mathematics through impressionistic quantitative ‘estimations’ rather than explicit computations is the worst example of such a cognitive fake.”
(Goldberg, p.153)

“The  great American psychologist William James was right when he said: “Could the youth but realise how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in their plastic state.”
(Goldberg, p. 156)

As I noted at the beginning of this review, it is truly apt that Elkhonon Goldberg - the leading specialist in the frontal lobes in the great Russian (post-Vygotsky) neurological tradition - has been the first brain scientist to seriously tackle the question of wisdom. For, as he clearly explains here, the frontal lobes appear to be the seat of wisdom, as they are of most (all?) subtly-nuanced human behaviours in which systematic and/or judgemental processes have to be invoked. In addition, too, it appears that their crucial role in ethical and moral thought may rest on the logical priority of sequential processing to such judgements, thus directly tying them to one of the foundational roles of this brain region in evolution...


“The frontal lobes, or more precisely the prefrontal cortex, are to the rest of the brain what the conductor is to the orchestra...[albeit they] have very little to do with descriptive knowledge, and...everything to do with prescriptive knowledge.... The more systematic the thought processes are, the more they depend on the frontal lobes. The introduction of logical, rational method into any kind of problem-solving increases prefrontal cortical activation - as does the increase in the problem’s complexity, which requires interrelating many parts and juggling many mental operations for its solution. Interestingly, inductive reasoning requires more prefrontal resources than does deductive reasoning. The frontal lobes appear to be the engine of complex, goal-directed action and thought.... To put it in other words, prescriptive knowledge, the generic memories of the effective ways of approaching life situations and of the optimal courses of actions for whole classes of such situations, are contained and accumulated within the frontal lobes.”
(Goldberg, pp.161-4)

“We know that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for the ‘sequential organization’ of behavior, for organizing behavior in time, and for arranging the various mental operations that go into any complex act of cognition into temporally ordered and coherent sequences. This most probably means that the prefrontal cortex contains the brain mechanisms of establishing the relationship between ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Then, by virtue of its ability to establish temporal relations, the prefrontal cortex has become critical for the next level of abstraction, for establishing the more complex causal relations, the relations between causes and consequences.... [Furthermore,] the capacity for grasping ‘if then’ relations is likely to be at the heart of moral development as well...[as] for sound decision-making in every arena - economic, political, or personal.... Empathy, insight into the mind of others, and the capacity for moral reasoning are among the most important ingredients of wisdom by any definition, on a par with the capacity for effective problem-solving. According to many definitions, wisdom implies the ability to integrate pragmatic ‘actor-centered’ and ethical ‘empathy-driven’ considerations, and this agrees with my own intuitive sense of the essence of wisdom. The unique role of the prefrontal cortex lies in its providing the neural machinery for bringing these two factors together, in a single well-integrated decision-making process.”
(Goldberg, pp.171-3)

As should be amply evident by this stage, Goldberg’s view of the brain processes involved in wisdom is hardly a simple one, and it admirably accounts for both the ways in which wisdom has been viewed traditionally, and the paradox that such a valued trait could emerge in an ageing organ. However, as Goldberg goes on to explain, the preceding analysis still needs to further complemented/complicated by a proper understanding of the functional differences between the two sides of our brain...a topic which has generated a substantial body of disinformation to date:


“The quest for understanding the functions of the two sides of the brain has been traditionally dominated by several tacit assumptions. The first assumption was that the differences are limited to the cortex, the so-called cerebral hemispheres. The second assumption was that these differences concern only brain function, and that the structure and biochemistry of the two sides of the brain are the same. The third assumption was that the differences between the two sides of the brain only exist in humans.... As it turned out, all of these three assumptions obscured the picture rather than clarified it, and all were ultimately proven wrong. This, in turn, has forced the revision of one of the most entrenched tenets of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience: that the distinction between language and nonverbal functions captures the essence of the difference between the two sides of the brain.... It looked increasingly like the the different roles of the two hemispheres in language was but a special, derivative case of some more fundamental, yet to be discovered difference, one that could be meaningfully observed in both humans and in animals.... [But,] as is often the case, when rigorous science is at a loss, loose metaphors fill the void.... The left hemisphere was declared ‘sequential,’ and the right hemisphere ‘simultaneous.’ The left hemisphere was declared ‘analytic’ and the right hemisphere was declared ‘holistic.’ The problem with these metaphors was precisely that they were only metaphors....[and] it was next to impossible to...falsify them."
(Goldberg, pp.187-94)

The same, however, is not true of Goldberg’s hypothesis in this area, which has survived scientific testing, as well as being clearly supported by imaging data, anatomical detail, neurochemistry, and a variety of functional correlations. This time, it appears, we actually do have a hold upon the whole elephant, even if (as seems likely) we still remain blind as to much of our neural functioning...


“Exactly what makes the right hemisphere better suited to deal with novelty and the left hemisphere to be a repository of mental routines?...The first difference relates to the way in which the overall hemispheric surface is allocated to different types of cortex. In the right hemisphere, it seems to favor the heteromodal association cortex; but in the left hemisphere it seems to favor the modality-specific association cortex. Both types of cortex are engaged in complex information processing, but in different ways.... Modality-specific cortex dismantles the world around us into separate representations.... By contrast, the heteromodal association cortex is in charge of integrating the information arriving via different sensory channels, for putting the synthetic picture of the multimedia world around us back together. The second difference relates to the way in which various cortical regions are connected in the two hemispheres. The left hemisphere seems to favor more local connections between adjacent cortical regions. By contrast, the right hemisphere seems to favor more far-flung connections.”
(Goldberg, p.196)

“It appears that the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the cingulate cortex, and possibly other structures operate in concert in mediating emotional experience and expression, and that they comprise two distinct, parallel systems of emotional control. On the left side of the brain this system mediates positive emotions, and on the right side of the brain it mediates negative emotions.... [Furthermore,] an intrinsic link exists between cognitive routines and positive affect, and between novelty and negative affect. Here is how it works.... The content of left-hemispheric storage consists overwhelmingly of ‘useful’ information, which by virtue of its utility is good for the organism. By contrast, the right hemisphere deals with novelty. It steps in whenever the cognitive repertoire already at the organism’s disposal fails to solve the problem at hand, and when de novo exploration is required. Right-hemispheric involvement is triggered by a disparity between the organism’s abilities and the organism’s needs. The search for a novel solution is triggered by the dissatisfaction with the status quo, by a situation that is unsatisfactory, ie., bad for the organism. A look into brain biochemistry further highlights the close link between the cognitive and emotional aspects of hemispheric specialization.... Certain neurotransmitters are slightly more abundant in the right hemisphere than in the left hemisphere, This is particularly true for norepinephrine. Other neurotransmitters are slightly more  abundant in the left hemisphere than in the right hemisphere. This is particularly true for dopamine.”
(Goldberg, pp.225-8)

And, as you might expect, the former mediates both negative affect and exploratory (novelty-seeking) behaviour, whilst the latter is associated with positive affect and the reinforcement of successful behaviours. In consequence, we can see brain lateralization - in this model - as a highly integrated emotional/cognitive system, with a lengthy evolutionary pedigree, rather than as the belated add-on which earlier theorizing had proffered. Moreover, this functional arrangement has strong implications for Goldberg’s wisdom hypothesis, allowing differential approaches to situations & problems  based upon  their relative familiarity, whilst at the same time amassing over time the “library” of patterns which will allow for the development of wisdom. This is a genuinely impressive explanatory model - supported by a very wide variety of evidence - which, moreover, is fundamentally consilient w/what we know about developmental processes in biology, as well as clinical (and) commonsensual - psychological understandings. No mean feat, I think you’d have to agree?


“How can we understand the differences in knowledge representation in the two hemispheres that account for their different roles at various stages of learning?...[As an analogy,] in descriptive statistics, the same set of data can be represented in two different ways: as group data and as a cloud of individual data points. The first representation [read: right hemisphere] is a grand average that captures the essence of the totality of all previous experiences, but in which the details, the specifics, are lost. The second representation [read: left hemisphere] is a library of specific experiences, but without the ability to extract the essential generalities.... [And] when new information arrives, the two respective representations will be updated in two very different ways. The group data will have to be recalculated every time such new information is received.... By contrast, the scatter plot diagram will be updated by merely adding individual new data points.”
(Goldberg, pp.214-15)

Elkhonon Goldberg’s The Wisdom Paradox represents, I feel, the very best of the new neuroscience - developmental rather than computational in orientation, open to the full variety of evidence relevant to the area, and willing to revisit fundamental assumptions should the evidence suggest this. Rigorous without falling for theoretical oversimplification, yet very much aware of the need to incorporate humanistic understandings, such a science is clearly crucial to any serious attempt to reconcile our divisively-ordered world...as is the wisdom which Goldberg helps us to understand.

For this is a deeply important book:


“Far from assigning a fixed repertoire of of roles to each hemisphere, the novelty-routinization hypothesis predicted an ongoing change in the nature of interactions between the two sides of the brain. What is novel today will become familiar tomorrow, in a week, or in a year.... [Moreover,] what is novel for one person is familiar to another person. Therefore, the novelty-routinization hypothesis implied a higher degree of individual differences in the ways our brains function than ever before imagined.... [Furthermore, and again] contrary to previously well-established beliefs, the right hemisphere is the dominant hemisphere at early stages of life. But, as we move through the life span it gradually loses ground to the left hemisphere, as the latter accumulates an ever-increasing ‘library’ of efficient pattern-recognition devices.”
(Goldberg, pp.198-214)




John Henry Calvinist