Cornel West, the Princeton philosophy professor, was recently asked to critique President Obama. “He’s too enamored of intellect and has failed to surround himself with people of wisdom” was the essential criticism that West, a friend of Obama’s, leveled at him.

I think many of us are enamored of intellect. I know I am. Growing up in the shadow of Yale University, intelligence was something to aspire to, even in the housing projects out on the edge of town. My mother’s dream for me was to attend MIT and become a civil engineer. (She grew up near Cambridge). My mother had few dreams of me growing up and becoming wise. That can be a problem for the world.

The Cornerstones of Wisdom

Compassion, self-understanding, morality and emotional stability are some of the qualities that science currently considers the cornerstones of wisdom. Two psychiatry professors at the University of San Diego think they have a research-based handle on what comprises true wisdom. Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks consider these five items to be the central unifying elements of wisdom:

Wisdom is uniquely human

Wisdom is a form of experience-driven,

advanced cognitive and emotional development

Wisdom is a rare personal quality

Wisdom can be learned and measured, and generally increases with age

Wisdom cannot be enhanced with drugs

Notably absent from the list is any mention of the heart. I’ve presented the Nine Integrative Neural Pathways previously in this blog, along with the Heartmath research and claims by Joseph Chilton Pearce that the next great human developmental/neurological frontier is fully expanding the existing brain-to-heart and heart-to-brain wiring such that it can carry a six lane expressway full of energy and information.

How do we build such expressways? The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once observed, the heart has its own wisdom and our left brains alone might not be the best apprehenders of it. (Pascal would have said it this way if he were a neuroscientist :-) ). The left brain – intellect alone – can’t provide a detailed plan or an accurate map, but it can take good notes along the journey.

Pivoting Between Heaven and Hell

The more I think about wisdom and what it is and how it relates to social neuroscience, the more I suspect it is a function of profound life experiences that work to organize and integrate our brains in complex ways. It is an organization and integration that often finds us traveling a path that touches on great suffering and brings us face to face with our own personal Dark Nights of the Soul – a journey that often forces us to look deep within our own hearts. William James called such people The Twice-Born.

Such integrating journeys increase and expand control of our limbic system, as demonstrated by the well-known Zen story, The Secrets of Heaven and Hell. This story not only demonstrates the ability to skillfully short-circuit potential limbic high-jacking, but it also demonstrates accomplished transpirational integration (wisdom consciousness), as well as profound heart-brain interconnectivity – a clear willingness to die for the benefit of another’s learning. Wisdom, this story suggests, runs parallel with the cultivation of learned fearlessness.

As a social critic, Cornel West shows up for me as someone demonstrating learned fearlessness. In his autobiography he provides one powerful clue to his fearlessness unfolding. He was asked how a black kid of modest beginnings managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years. Here’s his response:

The Sacramento (Bee) ran a long article on me with a big picture. They went over to interview (my) Dad. They told him they needed thirty minutes to ask a battery of questions about how he had raised his children. But Dad being Dad broke it down beautifully. He said, “I don’t need thirty minutes. Fact is, I don’t even need one minute. I can give you the answer in four words. Be there for them. Give your children all the time they need.

“That’s it?” asked the reporter.

“That’s it,” said Dad. “Be there for them.”

And he was. He always was.

For the wiring of wisdom and learned fearlessness, it apparently helps to start with a wise parent, one who fully recognizes the need to make and keep the “irrational commitment” to consistently be someone your kids can radically rely on. Not a job for the faint of heart.