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Study: Wisdom requires both higher heart rate variability and adopting a third-person perspective

wise reasoning——-

Many cul­tures con­sid­er the human heart to be the seat of wis­dom. Now sci­en­tists are find­ing some evi­dence for this, though the real­i­ty may be more com­pli­cat­ed than it seems.

Pre­vi­ous research has sug­gest­ed that high­er heart rate vari­abil­i­ty (HRV)—the vari­abil­i­ty in the time between our heart­beats, which is a mea­sure of heart health—is asso­ci­at­ed with bet­ter cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al func­tion­ing. For exam­ple, high­er HRV has been linked to bet­ter work­ing mem­o­ry and atten­tion, high­er lev­els of empa­thy and social func­tion­ing, and bet­ter emo­tion­al self-con­trol. Could heart rate vari­abil­i­ty be linked to bet­ter moral judg­ments, as well?

Researcher Igor Gross­mann from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Water­loo, Ontario, and his col­leagues at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­ern Syd­ney in Aus­tralia, looked at how HRV inter­acts with moral rea­son­ing and judgment—or wis­dom—in a series of exper­i­ments.

To mea­sure wis­dom, 186 par­tic­i­pants were asked to select a social or polit­i­cal issue cur­rent­ly being debat­ed in Aus­tralia that they felt par­tic­u­lar­ly strong­ly about—such as cli­mate change, unem­ploy­ment, tax­es, etc. Then they were asked to dis­cuss their insights into the issue and how they thought it might play out over time using one of two pos­si­ble view­points: 1) a “self-immersed” or sub­jec­tive, more per­son­al per­spec­tive, using first-per­son pro­nouns like “I” or “me” when pos­si­ble; or 2) a “self-dis­tanced” or more objec­tive, third-per­son per­spec­tive, using pro­nouns like “he” or “she” when pos­si­ble.

The researchers want­ed to see if direct­ing peo­ple to take the per­spec­tive of oth­ers (ver­sus think­ing in a more ego­cen­tric way) might play a role in wise rea­son­ing, and how that inter­act­ed with HRV. Past stud­ies had found that wis­dom might not arise sim­ply from high­er lev­els of cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing (which is linked to HRV); a self-dis­tanced per­spec­tive might also be need­ed to facil­i­tate insight.

Observers blind to the exper­i­ment cod­ed the par­tic­i­pants’ dis­cus­sions, look­ing for evi­dence of wisdom—defined as a recog­ni­tion of one’s lim­its of knowl­edge, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of change, and oth­ers’ per­spec­tives, and an attempt to inte­grate these dif­fer­ent points of view.

After­wards, the par­tic­i­pants were asked to make judg­ments about a fic­ti­tious per­son who engaged in neu­tral or moral­ly ambigu­ous activ­i­ties, such as return­ing (or not) a found wal­let, or keep­ing change (or not) when a room­mate gave them mon­ey to buy piz­za. Observers rat­ed these judg­ments for bias based on whether par­tic­i­pants con­sid­ered both dis­po­si­tion­al fac­tors and sit­u­a­tion­al fac­tors in mak­ing their judg­ments, or if they relied only on one or the oth­er. For exam­ple, par­tic­i­pants would be con­sid­ered biased if they said that keep­ing a wal­let sig­ni­fied that the per­son was dis­hon­est, peri­od (rely­ing on dis­po­si­tion­al expla­na­tions alone), with­out con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that circumstance—e.g., the per­son was poor and need­ed the money—might have played a role.

Analy­ses showed that hav­ing high HRV was con­nect­ed to wis­dom, but only if indi­vid­u­als had been instruct­ed to take a self-dis­tanced per­spec­tive. Par­tic­i­pants with high rest­ing HRV (record­ed before and after the exper­i­ments) who were assigned to the “self-dis­tanced” per­spec­tive were sig­nif­i­cant­ly more like­ly to dis­play wise rea­son­ing and less biased judg­ments than those with high HRV assigned to the “self-immersed” per­spec­tive, while those with low HRV did not seem to rea­son or judge dif­fer­ent­ly based on their assigned per­spec­tive.

This sug­gests to Gross­mann that hav­ing high HRV is not enough to improve one’s moral rea­son­ing or to pre­vent bias, even if it has been tied to bet­ter think­ing and emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion in past research.

The effi­cient pro­cess­ing of infor­ma­tion or a lot of pre­frontal cor­tex activ­i­ty alone does not nec­es­sar­i­ly make you wis­er. You also need to step beyond your own imme­di­ate self-inter­est for that,” he says. “So not every­one that has high­er heart rate vari­abil­i­ty will sud­den­ly be a wise per­son.”

Gross­mann believes that the cur­rent study builds on some of his pri­or research in which he found impor­tant dif­fer­ences between intel­li­gence, cog­ni­tive activ­i­ty, and wis­dom. In pre­vi­ous stud­ies, he’d found that intel­li­gence didn’t seem to impact one’s well-being, where­as wise rea­son­ing seems to be asso­ci­at­ed with var­i­ous mark­ers of indi­vid­ual well-being and hap­pi­ness. This sug­gests that wis­dom and intel­li­gence are sep­a­rate con­structs.

Wise rea­son­ing is only weak­ly relat­ed to gen­er­al cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties,” he says.

Though HRV may play a role in wis­dom, Gross­man thinks that there isn’t a lot one can do to change it—it’s more a mat­ter of indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences. But, he says, we may want to con­sid­er train­ing peo­ple in impar­tial, third-per­son per­spec­tive tak­ing to help them be wis­er in life, whether they have high HRV or not. He and his team are involved in a num­ber of projects aimed at help­ing oth­ers to be more objective—in social, polit­i­cal, and inter­group con­flict situations—and even­tu­al­ly pro­duc­ing more long-last­ing changes.

I don’t know exact­ly what the nuances of this inter­ven­tion would be, but I hope to tell you in a year,” he says.

jill_suttie.thumbnail— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

To learn more:

  • Study A Heart and A Mind: Self-dis­tanc­ing Facil­i­tates the Asso­ci­a­tion Between Heart Rate Vari­abil­i­ty, and Wise Rea­son­ing (Fron­tiers in Behav­ioral Neu­ro­science)
  • Con­clu­sion: Though wis­dom has been long viewed as too ethe­re­al to be a sub­ject of a tan­gi­ble empir­i­cal inquiry, in the last 25 years researchers have estab­lished sev­er­al psy­cho­log­i­cal com­po­nents of wise judg­ment (Staudinger and Glück, 2011). Recent­ly, neu­ro­sci­en­tists have pro­posed that to under­stand indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in wis­dom one also ought to con­sid­er aspects of human phys­i­ol­o­gy (Meeks and Jeste, 2009). The present arti­cle does exact­ly that, focus­ing on HRV. Our research sug­gests that wis­dom-relat­ed judg­ment is not exclu­sive­ly a func­tion of the body or the mind. Rather, both greater heart-rate-vari­abil­i­ty and an ego-decen­tered mind are required for a wis­er, less biased judg­ment.

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  1. Sandy says:

    Heart rate vari­abil­i­ty (HRV) is one way that we doc­u­ment FETAL well being. It changes with med­ica­tions, decreas­es in oxy­gen and oth­er influ­ences.

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