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

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.

Image by LUCAS OTTONE / Stocksy

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 SourceTara 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.

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