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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 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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