It seems that neurobiology has turned its attentions on ideas such as wisdom. What are the neural correlates of wisdom? Can we define it? Are these reasonable questions?

Wisdom is a very old concept compared to ideas like intelligence, intention, altruism etc. Philosophy, psychology or neuroscience had not worked and polished wisdom into a clearly defined concept. We do not attempt to measure it or teach it or have methods to encourage its use. But we know it when we see it (or the lack of it as in, ‘how can someone so smart be so dumb’). We know it has to do with: intelligence, knowledge, experience, perspective, emotional stability, fondness and tolerance of others, far-sightedness, practicality, good intuition, caution, self-knowledge, courage, lateral thinking, adaptability and more. But do we know any aspect of thought that should not be included in either its positive or negative form? I think not. We give the ‘wise’ adjective to those whose actions we admire and whose advice we heed. I have thought of wisdom as a well-balanced thought process rather than any particular trait. And that is why we tend to find it associated with age. It takes a lot of hard knocks to get the balance right.

Looking for neural correlates of wisdom seems a bit premature. If wisdom is a question of balance then one would expect the neural correlates to be most of the brain – certainly much of the cortex, the thalamus and the basal ganglia. One would expect the correlates to depend on the nitty-gritty of the definition of wisdom and the exact specifics of the tasks used to illustrate it. I suspect that what we think of as wisdom has more to do with how well we maintain/repair/update our minds then how we use them. It might be better to study possible components of wisdom and understand them first before tackling such a fuzzy concept.

Or we could just leave it as an old fashioned vague word whose definition remains too indistinct for either philosophy or science, but is a perfect definition in ordinary conversation for some extraordinary people.

One thought on “Wisdom

  1. Hi Janet
    Excelent post. I was thinking that maybe we should try to teach or encourage it somehow, instead of just recognizing it. We could probably learn it, if we had positive and negative feedback about how wise we are.
    I loved you definition of wisdom, I think it is fantastic, the only think I am not sure about is if it includes inteligence, maybe there is no need. You left me with my mouth open with your idea that wisdom is about how you mantain/repair… rather than what you do with it.
    Anyway, I do not think neuroscience and wisdom are ready to get together yet, because we do not agree about what wisdom is therefore I do not think we can explore it without
    starting from at least one certainty.

    JanetK: Thanks. I hope to do a post on maintenance sometime soon.

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