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Neurobiology of wisdom: a literature overview

, : Neurobiology of wisdom: a literature overview. Archives of General Psychiatry 66(4): 355-365

Wisdom is a unique psychological trait noted since antiquity, long discussed in humanities disciplines, recently operationalized by psychology and sociology researchers, but largely unexamined in psychiatry or biology. To discuss recent neurobiological studies related to subcomponents of wisdom identified from several published definitions/descriptions of wisdom by clinical investigators in the field, ie, prosocial attitudes/behaviors, social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life, emotional homeostasis, reflection/self-understanding, value relativism/tolerance, and acknowledgment of and dealing effectively with uncertainty. Literature focusing primarily on neuroimaging/brain localization and secondarily on neurotransmitters, including their genetic determinants. Studies involving functional neuroimaging or neurotransmitter functioning, examining human (rather than animal) subjects, and identified via a PubMed search using keywords from any of the 6 proposed subcomponents of wisdom were included. Studies were reviewed by both of us, and data considered to be potentially relevant to the neurobiology of wisdom were extracted. Functional neuroimaging permits exploration of neural correlates of complex psychological attributes such as those proposed to comprise wisdom. The prefrontal cortex figures prominently in several wisdom subcomponents (eg, emotional regulation, decision making, value relativism), primarily via top-down regulation of limbic and striatal regions. The lateral prefrontal cortex facilitates calculated, reason-based decision making, whereas the medial prefrontal cortex is implicated in emotional valence and prosocial attitudes/behaviors. Reward neurocircuitry (ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens) also appears important for promoting prosocial attitudes/behaviors. Monoaminergic activity (especially dopaminergic and serotonergic), influenced by several genetic polymorphisms, is critical to certain subcomponents of wisdom such as emotional regulation (including impulse control), decision making, and prosocial behaviors. We have proposed a speculative model of the neurobiology of wisdom involving frontostriatal and frontolimbic circuits and monoaminergic pathways. Wisdom may involve optimal balance between functions of phylogenetically more primitive brain regions (limbic system) and newer ones (prefrontal cortex). Limitations of the putative model are stressed. It is hoped that this review will stimulate further research in characterization, assessment, neurobiology, and interventions related to wisdom.


PMID: 19349305

DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.8

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