28 June 2019

Exploring Wisdom

Welcome back. If you’re in the mood to ponder, try this: Can wisdom be increased? Before you rush ahead, realize that increasing academic skills does not necessarily increase wisdom.
The Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid (modified from Contemplating Skill-Based Authentication www.saiee.org.za/DirectoryDisplay/AfricaResearchJournalArticle.aspx?ArjJournalListingId=8394).
Maybe I should start by defining wisdom. Or even better, I’ll review how researchers from the University of California San Diego addressed the topic.

Defining Wisdom
Religious and philosophical discussions of wisdom began long, long ago, yet empirical studies of the topic date only to the 1970s. The researchers take the approach that wisdom is a high-level quality that is useful for optimal functioning in society.

Drawing upon an in-depth review, they define wisdom as a complex human trait with several specific components: social decision making, emotion regulation, prosocial behaviors, self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty, decisiveness and spirituality.

Proposing a Neurobiological Basis
Going further, they assign the defined components of wisdom to areas of the brain, chiefly the prefrontal cortex and limbic striatum. Selection of these locations is based on current understanding of neurobiology. For example, research has linked the prefrontal cortex with character, the limbic striatum has been linked with temperament and spirituality appears to involve these as well as other locations.

Examples of proposed links between brain’s neuroanatomical locations (left) and components of wisdom (excerpt from figure in journals.lww.com/hrpjournal/Fulltext/2019/05000/The_Emerging_Empirical_Science_of_Wisdom_.1.aspx).
More broadly, research suggests that wisdom is associated with health, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction and resilience. Most studies also suggest that wisdom or its components increase with age. Despite the loss of fertility and decline in health, older adults help to enhance their offspring’s well-being and longevity, facilitating a possible evolutionary role in fitness of the species.

Model of Development of Wisdom
To lay the groundwork for future work, the researchers propose a model of how wisdom develops in response to genetic, epigenetic and environmental influences.

In a brief outline of their model:
- Specific genes may increase the tendency for wisdom.
- Family or societal support influence development of wisdom components.
- These genetic and environmental influences are further affected by changes with aging, while epigenetic changes are impacted by life experiences and lifestyle.
- Aging also affects brain structures and connections within the wisdom neurobiology.
- Together, these influences may contribute to stronger and more balanced functioning of the prefrontal cortex and limbic striatum and greater wisdom.
- Such benefits feedback to sustain pro-wisdom genes and environments.

Wrap Up

So, can wisdom be increased? The researchers offer reasons to support that it can.

Traits such as resilience and optimism have been found to be moderately heritable, which suggests they can be influenced by environmental factors.

Specifically located brain trauma or disease, such as frontotemporal dementia, can diminish wisdom, which suggests the possibility that wisdom might be enhanced through biological or behavioral interventions of those brain regions.

Further, given that the components of wisdom overlap and are interrelated, improving one component may improve others.

Overall, the researchers emphasize the need to expand empirical research on wisdom given its largely untapped potential for enhancing mental health of individuals and promoting well-being of society. 

Thanks for stopping by and pondering.

Study of wisdom in Harvard Review of Psychiatry: journals.lww.com/hrpjournal/Fulltext/2019/05000/The_Emerging_Empirical_Science_of_Wisdom_.1.aspx
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-05/wkh-bwi051419.php

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