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A Neuroscientist On Wisdom vs. Intelligence & Why They Both Matter

Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
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Wisdom and intelligence are both great qualities to have—but they certainly aren't mutually exclusive. Intelligence doesn't guarantee wisdom, and vice versa. In fact, while they may seem like similar traits, they're actually quite different, though it is possible to have both.

How is wisdom different from intelligence?

First things first: What do the two actually mean? By definition, wisdom (the quality of being wise) is described as "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment." To be wise is to have deep insight and understanding, and wise people may be thought of as old souls.

As neuroscientist and author of The Source Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., explains to mbg, "Wisdom is the life lessons you pick up through experience and store in your neurons but don't consciously recall."

Intelligence, on the other hand, is defined as "the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills." It's about intellect and the application of that intellect. Swart notes intelligence can be defined in several ways, including emotional intelligence, "But the traditional definition is about using your logic to solve problems and make decisions."

So the difference then is where these qualities come from and how we use them. Wisdom comes through experience, perhaps without us even realizing it, and intelligence, in all its many forms, is often something inherent (or something we consciously work on improving).

Wisdom "allows you to recognize patterns and make decisions based on intuition," Swart says, adding that it's more of a "felt" sense that something is right or wrong. Intelligence, she explains, "is more about data and 'knowing.'"


Is one more important?

Some people may favor intelligence over wisdom, or wisdom over intelligence, depending on their values, goals, and so on. But according to Swart, both are equally important.

However, she says, "As you grow in wisdom and experience, intuition can become far more powerful than logic alone."

Ideally, you can exercise both, so you can not only approach a situation logically (intelligence) but tap into your deeper sense of wisdom or intuition to read between the lines or see the big picture.

As Swart puts it, it's great when your wisdom and intelligence are aligned, "but when logic tells you one thing and intuition tells you another, you have to learn which leads to better outcomes for you."

How to discern wisdom from intelligence.

So, when the moment strikes, how can you know whether certain thoughts are coming from a place of wisdom or a place of intelligence (both in yourself and in another)? Here are a few strategies:

1. Notice where it's coming from.

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Swart explains that logic tends to "come from your head and is based on gathering facts and making a decision that you know the reasons behind."

Wisdom, on the other hand, "is felt usually in the gut or heart and comes with a deep sense of feeling that this is right for you, not just right in general," she says. It can often be accompanied by visceral sensations like goose bumps or even tears, she adds.

Notice how you reached the conclusion you came to; was your thought process more linear and logical? That's intelligence. Or was it more big picture, and allowed you to draw on past experiences and patterns? That's wisdom.


2. Write on it.

Further, if you want to get better at distinguishing between the two, Swart says journaling can help. Try reflecting on the times your intelligence may have served you better than your wisdom, and vice versa. You may find one is stronger than the other or leads to better outcomes when you follow it.

3. Ask others how they make decisions.

And the next time you're speaking with someone and want to know whether they're showing wisdom or intelligence, Swart says you can simply ask them directly where their reasoning is coming from and what it's based on.

You can usually get a sense from their answer, as they may say something that's clearly more logical (intelligence) versus something more big picture that's related to their own experience (wisdom).


The bottom line.

While one is no better than the other, both wisdom and intelligence are helpful qualities to have. Throughout our lives, wisdom is gained over the years, and on top of that, we're always presented with opportunities to exercise our intelligence by learning new information. The key is learning to hone both so they can work in tandem, and you can approach any situation with both logic and a deeper understanding.

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