Is Wisdom Wired in Us?

Christine Whelan | Posted on 05/12/10

How do you define wisdom? A wise person is... moral? Intelligent? Spiritual? Self-actualized? Emotionally stable?

In the last few years, Dilip V. Jeste, MD, and Thomas W. Meeks, MD, professors in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, have set out to find out where wisdom comes from, and how we as a modern culture define it.

Last year, Jeste and Meeks reported that while defining wisdom is subjective, there are enough similarities in definition across time and cultures to suggest that wisdom may come from just the right balance between our more primitive brain regions and our more recently developed brain functions like the pre-frontal cortex. In 2009, reported

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.

This year, they've gone a step further and conducted a survey of experts on the study of wisdom (it's a short list - the researchers were only able to identify 57 experts) to conclude that wisdom is different from intelligence and spirituality, but it uniquely human. Says Jeste

"Intelligence and spirituality share features with wisdom, but they are not the same thing. One can be intelligent, yet lack practical knowledge. Spirituality is often associated with age, like wisdom, but most researchers tend to define wisdom in secular terms, not spiritual."

Most of the experts, Jeste and Meeks said, agreed that wisdom could be characterized thus:

  • It is uniquely human.
  • It is a form of advanced cognitive and emotional development that is experience-driven.
  • It is a personal quality, albeit rare.
  • It can be learned, increases with age and can be measured.
  • It is probably not enhanced by taking medication.

I may not be wise enough to fully understand what all this means, but I'm certainly glad there are at least 60 people in the world who do.

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