A seat of wisdom in the brain?
April 24, 2009
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
“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 prosocial 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 prefrontal cortex. Meanwhile, moral decision-making is a combination of rational (the dorso lateral prefrontal cortex brain region, which plays a role in sustaining attention and working memory), emotional/social (medial prefrontal cortex), and conflict detection (the anterior cingulate cortex, sometimes also associated with a socalled “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 socalled limbic system, and the newest ones, namely the prefrontal 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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