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A seat of wisdom in the brain?

April 24, 2009
Courtesy University of California - San Diego
and World Science staff

Two re­search­ers have com­piled what they say is the first schol­arly re­view of the ba­sis in the brain of wis­dom—once the sole prov­ince of re­li­gion and phi­los­o­phy. 

The study by Dilip V. Jeste and Thom­as W. Meeks of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Ca­li­for­nia, San Die­go, was pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Ar­chives of Gen­er­al Psy­chi­a­try on April 6.

“Defin­ing wis­dom is rath­er sub­jec­tive, though there are many si­m­i­lar­i­ties in def­i­ni­tion across time and cul­tures,” said Jeste, a psy­chi­a­trist and neu­ro­sci­ent­ist. But “our re­search sug­gests that there may be a ba­sis in neuro­bi­ol­o­gy for wis­dom’s most un­iver­sal traits.”

Wis­dom has been de­fined over cen­turies and civ­il­iz­a­tions to en­com­pass nu­mer­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal traits. Com­po­nents of wis­dom are com­monly agreed to in­clude such at­tributes as em­pa­thy, com­pas­sion or al­tru­ism, emo­tion­al sta­bil­ity, self-un­der­stand­ing, and pro-social at­ti­tudes, in­clud­ing a tol­er­ance for oth­ers’ val­ues. 

“But ques­tions re­main: is wis­dom un­iver­sal, or cul­tur­ally based?” said Jeste. “Is it un­iquely hu­man, re­lat­ed to age? Is it de­pend­ent on ex­pe­ri­ence or can wis­dom be taugh­t?”

Meeks and Jeste not­ed that in the 1970s, there were only 20 peer-re­viewed ar­ti­cles on wis­dom, but since 2000, there have been more than 250 such pub­lica­t­ions.

In or­der to de­ter­mine if spe­cif­ic brain cir­cuits and path­ways might be re­spon­si­ble for wis­dom, the re­search­ers ex­am­ined ex­ist­ing ar­ti­cles, pub­lica­t­ions and oth­er doc­u­ments for six at­tributes most com­monly in­cluded in the def­i­ni­tion of wis­dom, and for the brain cir­cuit­ry as­so­ci­at­ed with those at­tributes.

Meeks and Jeste fo­cused mainly on brain imag­ing stud­ies, stud­ies which meas­ure changes in blood flow or met­a­bol­ic al­tera­t­ions in the brain, as well as on the func­tions and ge­net­ics of mes­sen­ger mo­le­cules in the brain known as neu­ro­trans­mit­ters. 

They found, for ex­am­ple, that pon­der­ing a situa­t­ion call­ing for al­tru­ism ac­ti­vates a brain re­gion called the me­di­al pre-frontal cor­tex. Mean­while, mor­al decision-making is a com­bina­t­ion of ra­tional (the dor­so­lat­er­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex brain re­gion, which plays a role in sus­tain­ing at­ten­tion and work­ing mem­o­ry), emo­tion­al/social (me­di­al pre-frontal cor­tex), and con­flict de­tec­tion (the an­te­ri­or cin­gu­late cor­tex, some­times al­so as­so­ci­at­ed with a so-called “sixth sense”) func­tions. 

Sev­er­al com­mon brain re­gions ap­pear to be in­volved in dif­fer­ent com­po­nents of wis­dom, ac­cord­ing to the two re­search­ers. They sug­gested that the neuro­bi­ol­o­gy of wis­dom may in­volve an op­ti­mal bal­ance be­tween more prim­i­tive brain re­gions, such as the so-called lim­bic sys­tem, and the new­est ones, namely the pre-frontal cor­tex. Knowl­edge of the un­der­ly­ing mech­a­nisms in the brain could po­ten­tially lead to de­vel­op­ing in­ter­ven­tions for en­hanc­ing wis­dom. 

“Un­der­stand­ing the neuro­bi­ol­o­gy of wis­dom may have con­si­der­able clin­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, for ex­am­ple, in stu­dying how cer­tain disor­ders or trau­mat­ic brain in­ju­ries can af­fect traits re­lat­ed to wis­dom,” said Jeste, stress­ing that this study is only a first step in a long pro­cess.


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Two researchers have compiled what they say is the first scholarly review of the basis in the brain of wisdom—once the sole province of religion and philosophy. The study by Dilip V. Jeste and Thomas W. Meeks, the University of San Diego was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry on April 6. “Defining wisdom is rather subjective, though there are many similarities in definition across time and cultures,” said Jeste, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist. But “our research suggests that there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom’s most universal traits.” Wisdom has been defined over centuries and civilizations to encompass numerous psychological traits. Components of wisdom are commonly agreed to include such attributes as empathy, compassion or altruism, emotional stability, self-understanding, and pro-social attitudes, including a tolerance for others’ values. “But questions remain: is wisdom universal, or culturally based?” said Jeste. “Is it uniquely human, related to age? Is it dependent on experience or can wisdom be taught?” Meeks and Jeste noted that in the 1970s, there were only 20 peer-reviewed articles on wisdom, but since 2000, there have been more than 250 such publications. However, the researchers found no previous studies using the keyword “wisdom” in combination with the terms neurobiology, neuroimaging or neurotransmitters. In order to determine if specific brain circuits and pathways might be responsible for wisdom, the researchers examined existing articles, publications and other documents for six attributes most commonly included in the definition of wisdom, and for the brain circuitry associated with those attributes. Meeks and Jeste focused mainly on functional neuroimaging studies, studies which measure changes in blood flow or metabolic alterations in the brain, as well as on the functions and genetics of messenger molecules in the brain known as neurotransmitters. They found, for example, that pondering a situation calling for altruism activates a brain region called the medial pre-frontal cortex. Meanwhile, moral decision-making is a combination of rational (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex brain region, which plays a role in sustaining attention and working memory), emotional/social (medial pre-frontal cortex), and conflict detection (the anterior cingulate cortex, sometimes also associated with a so-called “sixth sense”) functions. Several common brain regions appear to be involved in different components of wisdom, according to the two researchers. They suggested that the neurobiology of wisdom may involve an optimal balance between more primitive brain regions, such as the so-called limbic system, and the newest ones, namely the pre-frontal cortex. Knowledge of the underlying mechanisms in the brain could potentially lead to developing interventions for enhancing wisdom. “Understanding the neurobiology of wisdom may have considerable clinical significance, for example, in studying how certain disorders or traumatic brain injuries can affect traits related to wisdom,” said Jeste, stressing that this study is only a first step in a long process.