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Wisdom Part II: wisdom, biologically

April 10, 2011

Part III of a series: Part IPart IIPart III

Defining wisdom is hard enough, but then it is that much more difficult to study  such a complex quality. A scientific study of wisdom? We have a hard time figuring out how the cells within our brains communicate, how disease gains a foothold in the architecture of the mind, how consciousness arises out of the chemicals, signals and cells. How can we approach the study of wisdom?

Science takes on wisdom

neuron-- a brain cell

We may recognize wisdom, but how can we define it, study it, quantify it? Lao Tzu offers a warning: “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”

Neurobiology has persued the elusive basis of consciousness for decades. Why do we think about how we think? How do we know that we know? It is a field that has come up with many difficult to study hypotheses. Wisdom may be a more optimal functioning of consciousness. If we haven’t yet figured out consciousness, wisdom may have to wait, but it is still frustratingly wonderful to contemplate, and so neurobiologists have done so.

A perusal of the studies that attempt to find the neurological seat of wisdom, reveals some traits that appear again and again. Altruism, empathy, social responsibility, acceptance of other’s beliefs, ability to cope with uncertainty and danger, and emotional stability are commonly associated with our concept of wisdom. Some aspects of this definition are easier to study than others. For example, the amygdala, a pair of almond-like structures nestled in the middle of our brain, is commonly regarded as the center of emotion.

cross-section of the brain with the two amygdale indicated

This structure colors our experiences and memories with feelings like happiness, anger, or fear. Scientist can try to judge people’s emotional reaction to a stimulus, like a fearful face, by looking at activity in the amygdala, but studying where acceptance of other’s beliefs resides in the brain might be trickier.

Neurobiologists can study rats, fish, rabbits, and monkeys fairly easily, but studying humans is more difficult and expensive. Behaviors and reactions can be studied in controlled situations, brain activity can be monitored through fMRI and positron emission tomography, or scientists can compare normal brain activity to brain activity in people with deficits. Lesions caused by stroke or congenital conditions can render part of the brain non-functional. One of the

Patient HM- image from NYTimes obituary

most famous lesion patients was HM, a man who’s incurable epilepsy drove his doctor to surgically remove his left and right medial temporal lobes, including his hippocampus and amygdala. After the surgery, HM was no longer able to form new memories. This loss for HM was a great gain for science and led to much of what we know about where memory resides in the brain. HM may have lost the ability to remember the faces of the doctors around him, but he clearly had not lost his intelligence.  He was able to learn new motor tasks and seemed clear-headed and calm. He was a cheerful patient, which is remarkable for a person in his situation. “He was a very gracious man, very patient, always willing to try these tasks I would give him,” Dr. Milner, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University, said  to New York Times. “And yet every time I walked in the room, it was like we’d never met.” Was HM wise?

Wisdom does not seem to have one specific spot in the brain, but a 2009  review of wisdom studies proposes that it lies not in a structure, but in the pathways between structures. Scientists refer to structures that have a long lineage in evolutionary time as primtive and newer structures as derived. The new theory is that wisdom may arise from an optimal balance between the more primitive and derived parts of the brain. Specifically, Meeks and Jeste cite the chemical pathways between the limbic system—home of the amygdala—and the prefrontal cortex, that part of the human brain that blossoms above the ‘primitive’ brain, responsible for our personality, planning complex cognitive behaviors, decision making and social behavior.  Indeed, damage to the orbitofrontal cortex in humans results in disinhibited or socially inappropriate behavior and emotional changes.

Meeks and Jeste define several subcomponents of wisdom. These traits are commonly recognized as laudable and when in combination share elements with ancient definitions of wisdom. Pro-social attitudes are the ability to rise above your own self-interests for the benefit of the whole. Social decision-making and pragmatic knowledge of life is the font of quotes of wisdom that reveal how to deal with the world and the people in it.  Emotional control is necessary for balance and good mental health. Reflection and self-understanding ensure that you continue to grow in wisdom. Finally, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty and ambiguity is perhaps the most difficult to grasp part of wisdom.

The scientists observed that “knowledge of the underlying mechanisms (of wisdom) could potentially lead to development of preventive, therapeutic, and rehabilitative interventions for enhancing wisdom—including those for persons with relevant neuropsychiatric disorders (like dementia).” They are reluctant to propose any possible therapies that could improve quality of life for people with deficits or improve longevity of the average person. They stress that more research is needed and that this is a review intended to help define wisdom. Still, it is intriguing that the research of wisdom could have more implications that satisfying curiosity.  A future could be imagined where you could have an annual check-up with a wisdom doctor who advises and prescribes therapies to increase your wisdom components.

That is not to say that someday soon we’ll be popping wisdom pills, but also not to say that we won’t have some way to enhance wise brain waves.

Next: Wisdom Part III: The Berlin Wisdom Study


Baltes, PB and Smith, J (2008). The fascination of wisdom: its nature, ontogeny, and function. Perspectives on Psychological Science 3(1) 56-64.

Takahashi M, 2000. Toward a culturally inclusive understanding of wisdom: historical roots in the East and West. Int J Aging Hum Dev. 52 (3):217-230.

HM obituary:

Carey, B. H.M., and unforgettable amnesiac, dies at 82. New York Times published December 4, 2008.

Defining wisdom:

Defining wisdom— a project of the University of Chicago

Meeks TW and Jeste, DV (2009). Neurobiology of wisdom. Arch Gen Psychiatry 66(4)355-365.

Meeks TW et al., (2010). Expert consensus on characteristics of wisdom: a Delphi method of study. Gerontologist 50(5): 668-80.


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