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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Can Wisdom Be Found in the Brain?

A couple of researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have put together what they say is the first review of the literature on the neurobiology of wisdom. But here's the catch: The researchers, Dr. Dilip Jeste and Dr. Thomas Meeks, could find no studies that used the word "wisdom" and also used the word "neurobiology," "neuroimaging," or "neurotransmitters."
So they looked for empirical studies on the traits that are most commonly thought to be components of wisdom—like empathy, compassion, emotional stability, self-understanding, pro-social attitudes, tolerance, and the ability to deal with uncertainty—and the brain circuits associated with these traits.
The doctors found that in the 1970s, there were only 20 peer-reviewed studies on wisdom, but since 2000, there have been more than 250 articles on the topic.
And the research, says Jeste, "suggests that there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom’s most universal traits.” Specifically, they looked at neuroimaging studies, which seem to show that many of the same brain areas are involved in the different attributes associated with wisdom. According to the researchers, it looks like the neurobiology of wisdom involves a balance between the limbic system (a primitive brain region) and the prefrontal cortex (a highly advanced brain region). "Understanding the neurobiology of wisdom," Jeste says, "may have considerable clinical significance, for example, in studying how certain disorders or traumatic brain injuries can affect traits related to wisdom."
The overview is published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. —Heather Wax