Wisdom in theory, but maybe not in practice

By Rakhee Jain

Does medical training create colder doctors? Does an M.B.A. trump real-world financial experience? How well does the Academy really prepare people as they venture into their careers?

As part of the Chicago Wisdom Project, a team of University faculty is leading six distinct research efforts in order to answer these questions, attempting to bridge the age-old divide between theory and practice.

With the support of a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Project has described its work as an investigation into how wisdom is gained and used. This comes on the heels of a 2007 grant from the Templeton Foundation for the Defining Wisdom Project, which laid the groundwork for much of the current research.

One of these research investigations will examine the way formal training impacts a doctor’s sense of empathy and bedside manner. Jean Decety, project leader and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the U of C, wrote in an email that he aims “to reverse the current trend by which students emerge out of medical school significantly less empathic than they came in.”

Other professors have focused their attention on fields that aren’t so tightly fixed to specific careers.

For example, psychology professor Howard Nusbaum and music professor Berthold Hoeckner will study how meditation and other body control techniques can influence the mind. Hoeckner wrote in an email, “the core question of our research asks whether expert knowledge and use of certain bodily functions such as breathing and posture can have measurable effects on enhancing cognitive abilities and improving learning.”

The Chicago Wisdom Project will encompass a series of forums to encourage frank discussion of wisdom within fields like business, law, and public policy.  The U of C team plans to create a textbook, in conjunction with associates in China ,on teaching wisdom, incorporating views on the subject from around the world and across disciplines.