The neurobiology of wisdom

A new meta-study just completed by University of California neurologists sought to determine if specific brain circuits and pathways might be responsible for wisdom. Once the sole province of religion and philosophy, the researchers Dilip V. Jeste and Thomas W. Meeks say that there are many similarities in the definition of wisdom across time and cultures. Writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry, they argue that previous research does suggest that there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom’s most universal traits.

Over centuries and civilizations, wisdom has been defined 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 Jeste asks deeper questions. Such as whether wisdom is universal or culturally based. And is it uniquely human? Is it related to age? Is it dependent on experience or can wisdom be taught? Research on wisdom is a relatively new phenomenon. 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.

They focused primarily on functional neuroimaging studies: studies which measure changes in blood flow or metabolic alterations in the brain, as well as on neurotransmitter functions and genetics. They found, for example, that pondering a situation calling for altruism activates the medial pre-frontal cortex, while moral decision-making is a combination of rational (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, 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.

Interestingly, several common brain regions appear to be involved in different components of wisdom. The UC San Diego researchers suggest that the neurobiology of wisdom may involve an optimal balance between more primitive brain regions (the limbic system) and the newest ones (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 journey.

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Source: University of California – San Diego

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