Scientists study brain to research genetics of wisdom

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.”

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.

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

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.

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.

When the prefrontal cortex is damaged or diseased, people might lose certain component traits of wisdom. 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.

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. Wisdom can improve incrementally.

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.”

Teens can be very wise, particularly if they’ve had to grapple with these really heavy life experiences.