Is There A Seat Of Wisdom In The Brain?
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have compiled the first-ever review of the neurobiology of wisdom – once the sole province of religion and philosophy.
The study by Dilip V. Jeste, MD, and Thomas W. Meeks, MD, of UC San Diego’s Department of Psychiatry and the Stein Institute for Research on Aging, is published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
“Defining wisdom is rather subjective, though there are many similarities in definition across time and cultures,” said Jeste, who is the Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and chief of geriatric psychiatry at UC San Diego. “However, 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?”
Empirical 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. 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 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 process.
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(4):355-365. DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.8
Neurobiology of Wisdom. A Literature Overview.
Thomas W. Meeks, MD; Dilip V. Jeste, MD
Context Wisdom is a unique psychological trait noted since antiquity, long discussed in humanities disciplines, recently operationalized by psychology and sociology researchers, but largely unexamined in psychiatry or biology.
Objective To discuss recent neurobiological studies related to subcomponents of wisdom identified from several published definitions/descriptions of wisdom by clinical investigators in the field, ie, prosocial attitudes/behaviors, social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life, emotional homeostasis, reflection/self-understanding, value relativism/tolerance, and acknowledgment of and dealing effectively with uncertainty.
Data Sources Literature focusing primarily on neuroimaging/brain localization and secondarily on neurotransmitters, including their genetic determinants.
Study Selection Studies involving functional neuroimaging or neurotransmitter functioning, examining human (rather than animal) subjects, and identified via a PubMed search using keywords from any of the 6 proposed subcomponents of wisdom were included.
Data Extraction Studies were reviewed by both of us, and data considered to be potentially relevant to the neurobiology of wisdom were extracted.
Data Synthesis Functional neuroimaging permits exploration of neural correlates of complex psychological attributes such as those proposed to comprise wisdom. The prefrontal cortex figures prominently in several wisdom subcomponents (eg, emotional regulation, decision making, value relativism), primarily via top-down regulation of limbic and striatal regions. The lateral prefrontal cortex facilitates calculated, reason-based decision making, whereas the medial prefrontal cortex is implicated in emotional valence and prosocial attitudes/behaviors. Reward neurocircuitry (ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens) also appears important for promoting prosocial attitudes/behaviors. Monoaminergic activity (especially dopaminergic and serotonergic), influenced by several genetic polymorphisms, is critical to certain subcomponents of wisdom such as emotional regulation (including impulse control), decision making, and prosocial behaviors.
Conclusions We have proposed a speculative model of the neurobiology of wisdom involving frontostriatal and frontolimbic circuits and monoaminergic pathways. Wisdom may involve optimal balance between functions of phylogenetically more primitive brain regions (limbic system) and newer ones (prefrontal cortex). Limitations of the putative model are stressed. It is hoped that this review will stimulate further research in characterization, assessment, neurobiology, and interventions related to wisdom.