the science of wisdom

September 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

fmri-brain-scanfMRI scan

How much credence do we give a brief article on wisdom presented in the popular scientific press? The answer will depend on the variety of uses we might have for such an article. For instance, are we reading it because we are actually interested in the neurobiology of the brain? Are we reading it to gain wisdom? Although the emphasis of Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) work focused on the neurobiology of wisdom, it is worthwhile to reflect on their conclusions, as well as the limited way Lite (2009) presents it in her article in Scientific American.

Before I look at Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) paper, I’d like to lay down a couple of initial arguments. First with Lite’s (2009) article there are obvious omissions which are probably due to her editorial constraints, but in addition to this, Lite titles her article: “Is Wisdom in the Brain?” (2009). On the surface, this title is just a little redundant, since where else would we find wisdom, other than in our brain? Of course, this particular question can be asked and can lead us to any number of philosophical problems, for instance, is knowledge and/or wisdom innate? But, this isn’t where we want to go, because the particular study of neurobiology under consideration has to do with locating the exact function and chemistry of the brain when it is engaged in thinking wisely—the study is not trying to determine if wisdom can be located in the brain. A better title could be: Can Science Locate how Wisdom Works Within the Brain? The other contention I have with Lite’s article vs. Meeks and Jeste’s, is that she fails to account for the possible applications/conclusions that can be made using the study as a foundation for further developments in neurobiology and beyond. In other words, Lite basically presents that facts and we as readers don’t know what to do with the information, other than to conclude that a neurobiological study has recently looked into brain chemistry, circuitry and connections to determine where and how wisdom takes place in a laboratory context.

Meeks and Jeste (2009a) elaborated on research literature that was compiled from multiple sources that used the cutting edge technology of neuroimaging (fMRI) to study the brain. To define what this technology actually is, Hannah Devlin (2012) tells us that a fMRI “…works by detecting the changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity – when a brain area is more active it consumes more oxygen, and to meet this increased demand blood flow increases to the active area” (¶ 1). What this suggests is that neurobiology (the biology of the nervous system) shouldn’t be entirely confused with neuroscience (the study of the nervous system). Science Daily defines neurobiology as: “the study of cells of the nervous system and the organization of these cells into functional circuits that process information and mediate behavior” (2008, ¶ 1). Essentially, Meeks and Jeste were elaborating on multiple studies and research that used fMRI results showing what areas of the brain are connecting and what chemical exchanges and functions took place when wisdom was employed by groups of subjects in a laboratory setting.

What is most remarkable about the study is the basic fact that Meeks and Jeste (2009a) compiled an actual list (see below) that is comprised of the subcomponents of wisdom (p. 356). Their compiled six subcomponents are: “Prosocial attitudes and behaviors, Social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life, emotional homeostasis [emotional regulation], reflection/self-understanding, value relativism/tolerance [overall tolerance of other’s beliefs], acknowledgement of and dealing effectively with uncertainty and ambiguity [and so on…]” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 356). As I mentioned earlier, this list is the best part of the research because is provides an objective list of the important features of wisdom. Their objective list of the characteristic traits of wisdom is then employed, one at a time, to locate what exactly happens in the brain when each subcomponent is tested on while undergoing a fMRI. For instance, the doctors/scientists examined what precisely happened biologically in the brain when a patient is acting altruistically?—and so on.

subcomponents of wisdom meeks jeste

the subcomponents of wisdom (2009a)

How does the extensive scientific paper compare to what Lite (2009) writes about? Although she does a good job presenting the main ideas of the study, she also leaves parts of the information out. One oddity in her article is that she hyperlinks the reader to Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) paper, yet she refers to another talk given by the doctors elsewhere. I did a Google search and found a PowerPoint that Meeks and Jeste (2009b) put together that refers to most of what Lite writes about. Another point, and the most important part Lite leaves out, has to do with the doctor’s comments on potential uses of their research. These points are important because this demonstrates how the doctors envision the applications of the research into the future and the likely connections to other areas of expertise—gerontology, philosophy, developmental research etc. (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 361). Their list for the possible applications has a few that are worth quoting: “objectively measuring wisdom, examining the relationship of wisdom to socio-demographic variables […] using animal models […] and developing interventions to enhance wisdom” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 363). There are four others, but the four cited here stand out as excellent ways to think about where Meeks and Jeste see the research going. Lite makes no mention of these and I argue that if she did, her article would have more direction into the actionable features of how to implement this unique wisdom research.

Assuming that Lite’s (2009) article had to be short due to Scientific American’s editorial constraints, we’ll give her the credit she deserves. However, we practically know that things will get lost in the paring down of key information. With this said, let us not forget that we are dealing with understanding the neurobiology of wisdom, so actual wisdom cannot be left out of the ways the subject is addressed. This kind of problem is common when comparing philosophy to science. Philosophy and science are often conflated and typically this is at the disservice of the philosophy, since so few care to do the philosophical work behind it. This leads me to then question an obvious problem with Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) analysis. This problem is honestly addressed by the doctors when they confess: “Many studies included performance-based laboratory tasks, whose validity for assessing specific domains of wisdom may be open to question (e.g., how well an in vitro game assesses altruism in real life)” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009, p. 361). Their parenthetical statement is a form of an actual question I pose. How can anyone measure real-life altruism while examining a test subject while she’s attached to the wires, devices and machinery of a fMRI. I have to imagine that a patient would be stuck to all this equipment while she prescribed tests and games. Can this realistically be an effective way to know and understand the workings of altruism as it happens in the brain? Although there are questions about altruism where we can readily answer with assurance in the lab—do you give money to a charity? While other forms of extreme altruism are more drastically circumstantial—can you risk your life to save another? I’d have to say that the latter is way too difficult, if not impossible, to answer with any assurance, since we don’t know what we’ll do to save a life until we have the unfortunate situation at hand.

It should not be concluded that I would discourage any effort to continue this neurobiological work of Meeks and Jeste (2009a) along with others doing the same kinds of research. With this said, the take away lesson would be not only the where and how wisdom takes place in the brain, but to also understand how we can engage the act of encouraging actual wisdom in all circumstances—especially when we do science.

Aurelio Madrid


Devlin, H. (2012). What is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)? Psych Central. Retrieved from

Lite, Jordan. (2009). “Is wisdom in the brain?” Scientific American. Retrieved from

Meeks, Thomas W., MD & Jeste, Dilip V., MD. (2009a). Neurobiology of wisdom. Archives of General Psychiatry. Retrieved from

Meeks, Thomas W., MD & Jeste, Dilip V., MD. (2009b). Neurobiology of wisdom. Retrieved from

“Neuroscience.” (2008). Science Daily. Reuters. Retrieved from

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