Intelligence researchers in the last decade have been increasingly focusing on neurobiological issues, as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans are used to track brain activity during various processes. So it isn’t really a surprise that neurobiologists should also become interested in the idea of wisdom. This past spring Dilip V. Jeste, MD, and Thomas W. Meeks, MD, of the University of California San Diego’s Dept of Psychiatry and Stein Institute for Research on Aging, compiled the first ever review of empirical research on wisdom; their work "Neurobiology of Wisdom" appeared in Archives of General Psychiatry (Volume 66.4 - April 2009). Tracking wisdom in the brain is not an easy task, as the researchers admitted, especially given the culturally contextual nature of what counts as wisdom – and the fact that so far none of the neurobiological imaging research they were looking at was addressing wisdom specifically. So instead Jeste and Meeks broke the concept of wisdom into six categories that have been the subjects of functional neuroimaging studies: altruism, social decision-making, emotional balance, self-understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of ambiguity. The assumption, of course, is that these are connected to wisdom as we usually think of it. And they found that tasks involving these concepts seem to require activity among primitive brain regions like the limbic system – our reptilian wisdom – involved in emotional responses, as well as the pre-frontal cortex, the newest part of the mammalian brain, that seems central to rational processes. While they suggest that their findings could be the first step in a new direction of study, Meeks and Jeste are modest in their claims (“it would be unwise of us to claim this interpretation as a definitive model,” they say). So we'll all have to wait and see what happens next in this new area of research.
In the meantime... how well are your wisdom neurons firing? Really: how wise are you? Thankfully, the answer – at least a provisional one – is out there. Test yourself online at the New York Times on a scale developed by the University of Florida’s Monika Ardelt, a sociologist who researches wisdom, especially its purported relation to age. It turns out that most everyone I know who has taken the test can claim a “moderate” level of wisdom, according to Ardelt’s scale – some are highly moderate, but others only moderately moderate. But then wisdom lies in moderation, as Aristotle argued. And as for me, I’m only moderately old.