Scientists Study the Wise Brain

Are some people born with a greater potential to be wise?

Some scientists such as neuropsychiatrist Dilip Jeste think so. Jeste believes that wisdom is a trait that may be genetically inherited, though environment also plays a major role.

Jeste, a former senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California at San Diego, has been on a quest to understand where wisdom might reside in the brain.

Wisdom, he says, isn’t only a product of experience and age, but also of distinct traits and behaviors associated with specific but connected brain regions. The prefrontal cortex and amygdala are key, he said.

“The prefrontal cortex, hands-down, is the most important part of the neurobiology of wisdom,” Jeste said. Located behind the forehead, the prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the brain evolutionarily. “It is what makes us human,” he said.

It’s also the region responsible for reasoning, judgment and behavior control. The amygdala, nestled in the oldest part of the human brain, helps us to experience emotions, he said, “but the prefrontal cortex controls it.”

Traits of wisdom

Jeste, now president-elect of the World Federation for Psychotherapy, was intrigued when he noted that basic ideas about wisdom — as expressed in ancient spiritual texts — have remained stable over millennia, with some cultural differences.

The wise have tended to be compassionate, calm, open-minded and decisive people who have learned from their experiences.

This consistency across time and place spurred Jeste to wonder about a neurobiological basis of wisdom — and whether there is evolutionary value for wisdom.

In the “grandmother hypothesis,” for example, women might live decades beyond their reproductive years to transmit wisdom that helps adult children and grandchildren to thrive. Biologically, grandmothers have passed on their genes and may no longer be fertile, but by living longer, they can provide care and wisdom that boosts the physical and emotional health of their descendants.

Wisdom might even be a personality trait that could be roughly 35 to 50 percent genetically inherited, Jeste said, although environmental influences shape wisdom, too.

In his book, “Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good,” Jeste proposes that wisdom is a complex personality trait with several component traits:

  • Prosocial behavior (empathy, compassion and altruism)
  • Emotional stability
  • Self-reflection
  • Balancing decisiveness with acceptance of uncertainty
  • Pragmatic knowledge of life
  • Spirituality or belief in something larger than oneself

Brain regions involved in traits of wisdom

Prosocial behavior is most important, Jeste said. Rising above self-interests and promoting the common good are essential to wisdom across cultures, he said.

“We now know that a trait like empathy actually resides primarily in the prefrontal cortex,” Jeste writes in his book. The frontal cortex and parietal cortex contain mirror neurons, types of brain cells that enable people to gain immediate, instinctive insight into others’ feelings.

In contrast, antisocial personality disorder, marked by lack of compassion, shows up among sociopaths and psychopaths.

Environmental factors and genetic predisposition can contribute to an antisocial personality, Jeste said. In psychopathic brains, regions associated with empathy, mirroring, intuition and attunement are less active.

Biology, though, isn’t destiny, he said. A good upbringing and other positive environmental factors can enable those with antisocial predispositions to become more compassionate.

With emotional stability or regulation, another crucial trait, genes play a role in one’s ability to curb impulsiveness, Jeste said. But people can also learn impulse control. “There is no such thing as rash wisdom,” he said.

A third important trait, self-reflection, occurs in the medial prefrontal cortex, Jeste said.

When the prefrontal cortex is damaged or diseased, people might lose certain component traits of wisdom. For example, Jeste has treated patients with frontotemporal dementia, which affects brain areas associated with personality, behavior and language.

Patients often show a dramatic loss of empathy, judgment and restraint, even as their general intelligence remains largely intact. They begin to act impulsively or in socially inappropriate ways.

Not all scientists think that wisdom can be studied empirically. “There’s skepticism about concepts that people think are fuzzy,” Jeste said. And yet, he noted, scientists now study stress, resilience, and other qualities once considered too intangible to research.

In a 2019 paper that Jeste co-wrote for the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, he describes wisdom as an emerging empirical science with a burgeoning number of studies. Psychologists and sociologists have created wisdom measurement scales, and neuroscientists have conducted neuroimaging studies, but debates exist.

Wisdom as a skill

Howard C. Nusbaum, a psychology professor and director of the decade-old University of Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom, disagrees that wisdom is a personality trait with biological roots.

People can be wise in one situation and unwise in another, he said. Wise reasoning, he said, is a skill that can be learned and improved, to the benefit of oneself and others. “Practical wisdom,” he said, “leads to human flourishing.”

Wisdom can improve incrementally, Nusbaum said. “I don’t think about wisdom as all or nothing: you’re a wise person or a foolish person,” he said. Instead of striving to be a wise individual, he said, “we can get a little bit wiser in the next moment.”

For example, one can think more deeply about how an upcoming decision will affect others. It’s hard to be wise in isolation, he said. “It’s this notion of a kind of enriched, positive state that is connected to other people,” Nusbaum said.

Wisdom researchers do agree, though, that wisdom isn’t the same as intelligence, although the two are often confused. Smart folks aren’t always sage. As Canadian psychiatrist Harvey Max Chochinov wrote, “Smart talks. Wisdom listens. Smart always has answers. Wisdom tries hard to understand the questions.”

Wisdom doesn’t just come automatically with age, said Monika Ardelt, a sociology professor at the University of Florida and a wisdom researcher. “You have to learn from your experiences,” she said.

One strong early-adulthood predictor of being wise decades later is openness to experiences. she said. Rather than adopting a rigid, “I already know everything” mind-set, wise people stay open to learning, including from others, she said.

Young people can be wise, too, she said, and it depends on the circumstances.

“Teens can be very wise, particularly if they’ve had to grapple with these really heavy life experiences,” Ardelt said. “Some teens have terminal illnesses, and some of them turn out to be quite wise through these experiences.”

Published in The Washington Post, 2023
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All Content Copyright Katherine Kam, 2024