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Is wisdom in the brain?

Some of us look for wisdom in the Bible, Plato or at Grandma's knee. Dilip Jeste and his colleague Thomas Meeks are searching for it in the brain.

Jeste and Meeks, both geriatric psychiatrists at the University of California, San Diego, hypothesize in the Archives of General Psychiatry that wisdom, or at least the execution of its attributes, can be found in the brain's primitive limbic system as well as its more evolutionarily advanced prefrontal cortex.

Wisdom for centuries has been a religious or philosophical concept that varies somewhat by culture. But Jeste tells ScientificAmerican.com that there is reason to believe that it's rooted in neurobiology. He and Meeks pored through medical literature, locating 10 papers that defined wisdom. Based on commonalities in the research, the two proposed that wisdom is made up of the behaviors that reflect the good of the group, pragmatism, emotional balance, self-understanding, tolerance and the ability to deal with ambiguity. Then, based on those studies, they zeroed in on which neurotransmitters (the brain's chemical messengers) were active and which parts of the brain light up on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) when we behave wisely.

"What was striking was that some regions appeared time and again," Jeste  says: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (which is involved in control of emotions and processing ambiguity), the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which is involved in empathy, morality, self-reflection and decision-making), the anterior cingulate (which is important to detecting conflict) and the limbic striatum (part of the brain's reward system).

Jeste describes those regions' roles in wisdom this way: "The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is like a proverbial father: a disciplinarian, cold, calculating, rationale. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is probably like a mother: kind, nice, helpful, sociable, emotional. The anterior cingulate is the proverbial uncle who when you have a fight between father and mother, you go to your uncle. The limbic striatum is a friend, a reward system."

"If you look at it in this fashion, it makes sense to have a balance among these regions to lead to something akin to wisdom," he says. "You need cold, calculating rationality but also emotional sociableness. You need to have rewards for what you do and punishments for what you don’t do and conflict detection and resolution."
 
Jeste and Meeks concede that some might call their conclusions reductionistic because they based their "map" not on the idea that wisdom is a single trait, but a collection of attributes. But Jeste said that similarities between how wisdom was portrayed thousands of years ago in the Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu scripture) and in the West today — as well as the tale of Phineas Gage, a railway worker whose allegedly wise attributes such as amiability and good judgment were said to vanish after a spike penetrated his left frontal lobe — "makes you think it's not a cultural phenomenon but biologically consistent."

Updated at 2:40 P.M. April 7 to correct academic affiliation of scientists to University of California, San Diego from San Diego State

Image by iStockphoto/pavlen

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