The nature of wisdom has long been the domain of philosophers, but University of California at San Diego neuroscientists Thomas Meeksand Dilip Jeste have thrown their hats into the ring with the likes of Plato and Kant. They analyzed decades of research and found that the multitude of characteristics associated with wisdom—including social decision making and control of emotions—may be accounted for by a surprisingly small number of brain regions: a putative wisdom network. One brain area, the anterior cingulate cortex, detects conflicts and makes decisions.
Psychologists at Stanford University recently found that activity in this part of the brain predicts how we balance short- and long-term rewards. But wisdom is about more than just cold calculation. “Instincts and emotions are also critical,” says Jeste. So areas of the brain responsible for emotions, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, play a role as well. A recent study from Caltech and the University of Iowa found that damage to this area made people less susceptible to guilt and could lead to poorer social decision making. As Meeks and Jeste continue developing their model of wisdom in the brain, they plan to study the distribution of wisdom in the general population and examine brain-damaged individuals to confirm the regions involved.