Sapience - Introduction

From Whence Cometh Wisdom?

What is wrong with the world is not a lack of intelligence or creativity, what I like to call 'cleverness'. The existence of our science, engineering, works of art, music, and literature, and social institutions are adequate proof that we are not lacking in that capacity. Nor do we lack in passions, everything from our primitive emotions to our refined spirituality show that our minds are propelled by feelings of every sort. What is wrong is a lack of wisdom. That is what most profoundly affects our lives and, in these times, the whole world. We need to have a better handle on how to use our cleverness, how to modulate and appropriately use our emotions and feelings, to make life sustaining decisions for humanity and the Ecos. As a species we lack, ironically, a sufficient level of the very capacity for which our species was named, what the Greeks called sapience — wisdom. Carrolus Lineaus named us Homo sapiens, man the wise, thinking, I suppose, that to be the defining character of our kind (and to make a clear distinction between man and the rest of animal life!) Indeed, humans possess some capacity for wisdom. Occasionally persons of greater than normal wisdom shine forth and the rest of us intuitively recognize them. But that is really the problem. The occurrence is all too infrequent. Moreover, the common level of wisdom seen in the average human is simply not sufficient to provide benefit in the modern fast-paced and complex world produced by our cleverness and passions. If we are to succeed in surviving our own foolish mistakes, made from not having wisdom to make the right choices, we had better take a closer look at this mental capacity and see if we might not have a way to expand it in the future. We need to understand where wisdom comes from. And that means understanding not only what it is, but where in the brain it is 'processed'.

What makes a person wise?

Nearly one year ago I asked the question What is sapience?. This is a question that has occupied no small amount of my thinking over the past ten years. In that post I provided a basic overview of the mental/brain basis for wisdom when it is realized in the lives of individuals (usually the elders). So new readers may want to take a look to get an orientation to what follows. Put simply sapience is composed of special mental processing (in special brain areas) that goes beyond what we normally think of as intelligence. In that post I provided a diagram that helps orient the nature of sapience compared with the other major psychological constructs, intelligence, creativity, and affect1, 2. Currently the psychology community studies the phenomenon of wisdom as a construct. I suggest changing the terminology with reference to the brain's capacity since the term wisdom carries some extra non-psychology baggage.

Over the course of the next several (I don't actually know how many) posts I want to make a deeper exploration of sapience. I want to share with you my explorations into what the components of sapience appear to be and how they work (when they work). I will also expand on the evolutionary significance of sapience and further explain why I think it, as a mental capacity, has failed to further evolve in our species. [Of course events in the news may demand a side trip of commentary interspersed with this review of sapience. Unfortunately the world doesn't stop for intellectual exercises and recent global events suggest that more drastic events may lie ahead. My motive in exploring sapience more fully is to offer a remedy for the foolishness that humans have had, leading to the current set of survival challenges we face.]

Wisdom shares some aspects with both intelligence and creativity 3 as well as having an emotional aspect 4. This is why I used overlapping ovals in the above post reference. All four components of mentation interact and operate together to produce the complete, normal conscious person.

The Components of Sapience

In a manner similar to the diagram of the mind introduced in the Jan. 21 posting (referenced above), figure 1 below shows a diagram of the components of sapience. The four components are judgment, moral sentiment, strategic perspective, and systems perspective. Each will be described briefly along with their relationships to the other mental components of intelligence, creativity, and affect. In future posts I will provide more detail for each of these. In the figure they are shown overlapping because they all interrelate to one another in very complex ways.

Figure 1. Sapience decomposed into four basic functions, judgment, moral sentiment, strategic perspective, and systems perspective.

The arrows, from and to external functions, in the figure are meant to roughly represent the recurrent messages that pass between functions (and presumably between brain centers that are involved in processing them). The overlapping of central functions in sapience means to convey the tight integration of these functions without explicitly representing it with arrows. Note the thick arrow from judgment to intelligence & creativity. This is meant to convey the effect judgment has on these processes (see below).

Note also the box labeled 'tacit knowledge'. This is the storehouse of implicit memories that connect conceptual memories in functional ways. It is, in effect, our model of how the world works (see my May 20 post, What kind of tacit knowledge produces wisdom for an earlier version of the components of sapience). All of the functions of mind (intelligence & creativity - I&C - and affect) and all of the functions of sapience affect tacit knowledge. I&C act to form concepts and their relations and link them to the tacit knowledge store. Affect tags each such linkage with valence (good or bad affect)2.

Judgment informs what new knowledge should be incorporated and how it should be integrated into our existing tacit storehouse. Similarly, strategic and systems perspectives help guide this process (knowledge acquisition) as well as helping interpret stored strategic and systems knowledge for the judgment function. Finally, moral sentiment, our sense of rightness and wrongness, guide the integration with respect to our social mores and rules of conduct.


The capacity for judgment has started to come under the study of psychology and neuroscience in recent years. Judgment is one of those ineffable capacities that seems somehow related to intuition and yet clearly is linked with rational thinking and decision making. On the one hand, our judgments come unbidden from somewhere in our minds to guide our decisions, yet most of us do not really have a conscious experience of forming a judgment (see esp. page 1)5. It is just something we all do.

Judgment is an integral part of decision making. In a future post I will delve more deeply into that relationship and show how the mechanics of decision making, a function of intelligence, is mediated and shaped by judgment. For now note that we make judgments about almost everything without really thinking about it. More primitive minds are guided in decision making (presumably without conscious thought, or at least a language) more by emotions than by reason, and those emotions are often essentially built-in. Human minds have an added advantage in being able to bring more complex learned knowledge to bear on decisions even when we are not consciously trying to do so. That does not mean we are completely rational in our choices. Quite to the contrary we have many built-in biases that keep us from making completely rational decisions. And, indeed, it seems that most humans tend to rely more on their emotional guidance than any experience-based approach. In a simpler world, where our major concerns involved conspecifics (both us and them) and nature (predators and prey) the kinds of judgments we needed to make were relatively simple. They needed lots of tacit knowledge, to be sure, but were about things that could readily be learned and understood in our model of the world. But as the world changes more rapidly and gets more complex our native judgment capacities are being put to the test. As Robin Hogarth puts it:

However, the increasing interdependency and complexity of modern life mean that judgment now has to be exercised on matters with more important consequences than was ever the case in the past. Moreover, the frequency with which people are called upon to make important judgments in unfamiliar circumstances is growing5
The modern world is putting our capacity to build an adequate storehouse of tacit knowledge and our capacity to make critical judgments from whatever knowledge we are able to obtain to the test, most severely.

Good judgment is necessary for good decisions. The reason is simple and I refer back to my post of Dec. 7, Does local optimization imply global optimization?, in which I point out that a decision to optimize locally may actually cause a global sub-optimal result. The reason is that we typically only have local information to use in forming a decision about what to do. That local information will not include the fact that just around the next bend, out of our local view, is an obstacle or a precipice. We are forced to make decisions using our intelligence and the best local information we can muster. But it does not guarantee us that we are making the right decision in a global sense. Hence we build a storehouse of global knowledge over our lives (if we survive!) and use that to guide intelligence in making that decision based on local information. Fortunately many decision points have characteristics of situations we have seen in the past. As such we can apply our past knowledge, even if subconsciously, to anticipate the results of a current decision (see below for a discussion of systems thinking). Even this does not guarantee an absolutely correct decision. But it is better than only using local information.

The more comprehensive a model (tacit knowledge) we have the more likely our decisions will prove adequate. Comprehensive here means covering a larger scope of space and a longer time scale. The more and varied life experiences we have had and the more lessons we have learned about those experiences the more power we bring to bear on the present local situation. This is why the brightest people who have lived long seem to be the wisest in general. They have, in their brightness, brains capable of storing large knowledge sets with reliable and ready access to memories. They have in their age lived long and experienced more than average. And those experiences and their meanings are encoded in tacit form. It gets back to brain competency. The brain of someone who has a higher level of sapience has the competency to acquire the right kinds of tacit knowledge and has the competency to use that knowledge to maximize the likelihood of making good decisions in a complex, fast moving world.

Moral sentiment

Altruism evolved in social mammals (and birds) as a means of increasing the fitness of the group over that of individuals 6 and the general fitness of the species. We evolved a sense of right and wrong behavior in ourselves and others. The specifics of many practices and social mores vary from culture to culture, but all cultures have rules of behavior that reflect the inner sense of moral and ethical sentiments.

While many religious and conservative people believe that moral reasoning (the 'axioms' and rules) comes from a higher power and the scientific evidence that our brains are hardwired by evolution to base judgments on inherent, and subconscious, moral sentiments is now solid. Marc Hauser provides an interesting insight on moral sentiments and how they play in judgment. Describing a creature that has characteristics advanced by David Hume, he writes:

Thus was born the "Humean creature," equipped with an innate moral sense that provides the engine for reasoned judgments without conscious reasoning. Emotions ignite moral judgments. Reason follow in the wake of this dynamic. Reason allow us to think about the relationship between our means and our ends, but it can never motivate our choices or preferences. Our moral sense hands us emotional responses that motivate action, enabling judgments of right or wrong, permissible or forbidden.
And later he says, "Conscious moral reasoning often plays no role in our moral judgments, and in many cases reflects a post-hoc justification or rationalization of previously held biases or beliefs (pp 24,25)."7

The drive to moral reasoning is built into us as social creatures who need to cooperate more than compete within our tribe. Higher moral sentiments provide guidance to our acquisition and use of tacit knowledge and our modulation of the limbic system's automatic responses to prevent unreasoned actions. We have the ability to inhibit our tendency to get even with someone who has hurt us. We have the ability to inhibit our tendency to want to bed the first beauty we could otherwise seduce. Higher sapience means that we will exercise this control over our primitive urges.

Systems perspective

One of the main problems with a notion of higher sapience being dependent on more brain power in acquiring massive amounts of knowledge is that the brain is, after all, limited in its ability to encode memories. However, the memory capacity of the brain depends on how the knowledge is encoded. We now know that our memories are not simple recordings of happenings or images. Rather the brain builds conceptual hierarchical codes to represent things, relationships, movements, and so on. The brain re-uses representations through complex neural networks which allow sharing low level features among many higher-level concepts. The brain also organizes concepts in a hierarchical classification scheme that allows ready associations. For example our hierarchy of 'mammal-dog-fido' associated with 'dog-pet-fido' allows us to relate other kinds of dog-like animals and compare features, such as 'mammal-wolf-teeth-aggressive' with 'mammal-dog-teeth-friendly(mostly)'.

It is the organization of concepts into networked hierarchies that allow us to not have to store every little detail with every instance of a thing, place, or action. Rather, we now know that our brains reconstruct memories from cues by activating a specific network of associated neural clusters. The brain is designed to store massive amounts of encoded 'engrams' but only because it knows how to organize the components in such a way that many engrams can share sub-circuits.

There is another trick to organizing knowledge to achieve maximum compression. That is to base the organization of knowledge on universal models that pertain to all aspects of life. The most general such model is systemness, or the nature of general systems. No matter how complex the world seems, it is resolvable into a hierarchy of systems within systems. That is everything is a system and a sub-system of some larger meta-system. Systems have universal properties even though their forms may be significantly different. Some systems with fuzzy boundaries may not even be readily recognizable. Yet the world, indeed the universe, is organized as systems within systems with varying degrees of complexity and organization. Some systems are too small to be detected with the normal human senses (bacteria and single-celled organisms). Some systems are too huge to be readily detected (the galaxy) by ordinary sensory means. Some systems are so diffuse that they cannot be easily categorized as a system (the atmosphere). But as long as there are aggregates of matter and flows of energy there are systems. As an aside, if this were not true, then science could not work as it does!

Some people see systemness naturally. Actually all people do to some extent though they might not be able to deal with the complexities of particular systems. In seeing systemness, the brain is able to know instantly a great deal about a specific system even if one has never encountered that specific configuration of matter and energy before. In other words, some people have the ability to instantly or quickly recognize the system components and principles of dynamics that govern the system because they are natural systems thinkers.

The capacity to quickly organize new information on the basis of systemic principles is what allows some people to learn completely new cultures, jobs, or anything. They can relate the specifics of a newly encountered system to the general principles of systemness and learn to manipulate the new system based on those principles applying. It is a strong perspective of systemness that allows some people, and especially the more sapient, to build a comprehensive storehouse of tacit knowledge and later to use that knowledge to rapidly adapt to new system particulars. Systems recognition and perspective is at the base of the aphorism "There is nothing new under the sun." Or the expression that "No matter how much things change, they stay the same."

Wisdom is often characterized by a person's ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. This ability is greatly enhanced by the systems perspective. It permits one to be calm in the face of uncertainty, for example, knowing that systems dynamics may seem chaotic (in the vernacular sense) but are really part of the probabilistic nature of the cosmos. Systems thinking gives resolve to the notion that while there may be great ambiguity now, further investigation (gaining additional information) will reduce ambiguity since the systems principles hold universally. In other words, this is the source of faith for the wise. The world will become clear in time! In future posts I will tease out more of these systems principles and talk about how they apply to adapting to new experiences as the world changes.

Strategic perspective

But speaking of the world changing and systems thinking raises another characteristic of sapience, and one that is generally at a very weak level in most humans; strategic thinking. As with systems thinking most people do some strategic thinking, at least from time to time. But the vast majority of people stick to logistical and tactical decision making which is why our species has a tendency to discount the future and make near-term decisions on profitability.

The importance of strategic thinking as an individual capacity is just beginning to dawn on some psychologists and evolutionary psychologists. So there isn't yet a large body of literature on this. What exists comes, again, from the judgment literature where people have been studying the systemic biases in human judgment that prevent people from thinking long-term, especially subconsciously. But it should be clear that a wise person is concerned with what will happen in the long run. A wise person will counsel for actions today that will have a positive impact on the future even when he or she will not be a part of that future. Too many average humans are short-sighted. They cannot really imagine what tomorrow will bring. This explains why there are so many who grasp the importance of something like CO2 emissions or peak oil. It also explains why those with selfish motives actively deny that these phenomena are even real.

My suspicion is that our species was just starting to evolve higher capacities for strategic thinking (which explains why we even know what strategic thinking is!) as a stronger part of our sapience. But with the advent of technology, and especially agriculture, the selection pressures that would have moved us further in that direction were removed. The result is that the vast majority of people do not think strategically and do not really care much about the future (except to fantasize about it perhaps). I will be posting about the latest research in human happiness that shows we consistently do not really understand our own selves, what would make us happy in the future, because we don't understand the present and how it projects into the future.


Sapience is what forms the basis for developing wisdom over one's life. It is an inherent, that is genetically mediated, capacity of brains that have greater processing power in key regions of the prefrontal cortex. It is not well developed in the vast majority of the population, which could explain why humanity is in the mess it is in today. We've made some very unwise choices throughout history. We continue to fail to learn from those mistakes, both individually and collectively. Our lack of wisdom on both fronts will doom us to make more serious errors in the future. It could possibly lead to the extinction of the genus Homo as there are no other representatives of the only talking ape.

To elevate our sapience will require greater capacities for judgment, moral sentiment, systems and strategic thinking. Some of this might come from better development environments. Like intelligence is known to be malleable under the right circumstances and within a certain range, wisdom might be improved under the right culture. But some aspects of sapience are inherent and there will need to be a genetic factor introduced to improve the native capacity. Stay tuned.


  1. Sternberg, Robert J. (2003). Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized, Cambridge University Press, New York.
  2. Damasio, Antonio R., (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, G.P. Putnum's Sons, New York.
  3. Sternberg, Robert J., "Wisdom and its relations to intelligence and creativity", in Sternberg, Robert J. (ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, New York.
  4. Kramer, Deirdre A., "Conceptualizing wisdom: the primacy of affect-cognition relations", in Sternberg, Robert J. (ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, New York.
  5. Hogarth, Robin (1980). Judgement and Choice, John Wiley & Sons, New York.
  6. Sober, Elliott & Wilson, David Sloan (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
  7. Hauser, Marc D. (2006). Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, HarperCollins, New York.