There seems to be a great hue and cry in the wake of the current global economic downturn, that while we have great quantities of information at our fingertips, what we aren’t so easily able to extract from all this data … is wisdom. Nevertheless, wisdom, it turns out, presents an identifiable signature in our brain. That’s the good news – we can find it by its signature.
For purposes of this research, scientists at The Stein Institute for Research at UC San Diego combed the neuroscience literature using keywords that involved attributes such as empathy, self-understanding, compassion or altruism, emotional stability, pro-social concerns and a tolerance for others’ values. These are generally considered to be cross-cultural components of wisdom.
What Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks found in their review of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies is that contemplating a situation calling for altruism activates a front part of the brain called the medial pre-frontal cortex. If moral decision-making is under consideration, then the brain appears to fire up rational thinking areas – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – emotional/social areas – the medial pre-frontal cortex – and conflict detection areas – the anterior cingulate cortex, sometimes associated with what’s commonly thought of as our “sixth sense.” Thus, the brain seems to make great use of the prefrontal areas, the place where optimal integration and connectivity appears to be able to keep our limbic systems in check so that we can get on with the work of being wise. It’s difficult to be consistently wise and emotionally disturbed at one and the same time.
This survey research actually confirms the nine middle prefrontal functions that Dan Siegel writes about in The Mindful Brain. Those are: bodily regulation, emotional balance, attuned communication, insight or self-knowing, the ability to self-soothe fearful reactions, intuition, morality and response flexibility – which is the ability to quickly course-correct when new information presents itself. So, we apparently know where wisdom lives in our brains (We have yet to do similar detailed studies on the neurons of the heart!). But by inference, we can guess how to strengthen and stabilize wisdom’s foundations. And bigger, stronger foundations produce a much bigger footprint.
Strengthening the Wisdom Circuits
More good news is that frequent practice with these six or nine attributes very likely grows and strengthens the connections in our Wisdom Circuitry. The more we model for our children, and the more we ourselves act compassionately and altruistically, the greater grows our capacity to act even more compassionately and altruistically in the future. Then, when neural pruning season arrives (apoptosis), because the Wisdom Circuits are demonstrating strength and frequent usage, they will have to be left in place to continue growing and connecting – those neurons won’t fall victim to the Great Neuro-Pruner.
I’ve already written here about Stephen Post’s research on the health benefits of altruism. In the brain, it’s not so much what you know, as who you know. Just like in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, it’s the connections you have that get your movie made or your startup company funded. As a general rule, the more connections the neurons in your brain make – particularly from the prefrontal areas where wisdom appears to reside – to the other areas, the better much of the rest of the heart, brain, mind and body appear to function. This assertion also seems to be borne out by Pat Kuhl’s research that took advantage of the open language window in toddlers. She apparently increased their overall neural connectivity by exposing them to a second language during this critical developmental window. As might be predicted, the results appeared to generalize to other areas, resulting in increased developmental function.
Not So Fast
So that’s the good news: wisdom can be learned and strengthened through practice. The bad news though, is that the Wisdom Circuits apparently don’t work so well with today’s rapid-fire technologies. Communication mediums like cell phone texting and Twitter may be moving us away from developing and strengthening our Wisdom Circuits as this recent study by neuroscience superstar, Antonio Damasio suggests. Developing wisdom it appears, requires us to slow down and take time for reflection.
More bad news is that those in power who might model and make the best use of wisdom, rarely get much training and practice developing it. (Seeing them on the floor of the Senate and House distractedly texting and Twittering does not inspire great confidence, by the way). If the quants and power brokers on Wall Street had brains that were trained and organized early on to be deeply concerned with empathy, self-understanding, compassion or altruism, emotional stability, pro-social concerns and a tolerance for others’ values – the essential components of wisdom – my bet is that we wouldn’t be in the fiscal mess the world is currently in. Robust Wisdom Circuits would have helped us all steer a much safer course.