A woman checks her voter guide while voting at the San Diego Registrar of Voters office in Kearny Mesa.
A woman checks her voter guide while voting at the San Diego Registrar of Voters office in Kearny Mesa. Photo by Chris Stone

By Dilip V. Jeste, MD

As I write this, millions of Americans are preparing to vote; many millions already have. Their ballots present myriad choices, from President of the United States to local city council members and school board trustees.

We will make these choices, each of us, knowing there will be no unanimity. The vote will be split. Politics is a matter of opinion and everyone has their own. But in at least one way, I think we all mark our ballots with this singular desire: That our choices be wise and our elected leaders be wiser.

I am a neuropsychiatrist. Much of my career has been devoted to studying aspects of healthy aging and cognitive function in older people. From these efforts, I have come to specialize in the neurobiology of wisdom. Or more precisely, in answering questions like what wisdom is, how it works in the brain and how individuals can consciously make themselves wiser, faster.

Wisdom might seem too fuzzy to be the subject of rigorous scientific scrutiny. While we all can cite examples of people we consider wise, from famous figures to family members, coming up with a precise definition is much more difficult.

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And yet that is what a number of researchers like myself have been doing for the last couple of decades. Wisdom is not just the province of poets, pundits and philosophers. It is a matter of empirical curiosity and investigation as exacting as other biological or physical science.

Years of published research has determined that wisdom is a set of measurable traits and behaviors based upon brain biology interacting with the environment, i.e. how you were raised, your relationships with others, what happened in your life. It is a complicated formula of ongoing interactions unique to each of us. Wisdom is accrued through myriad means. Some we can control, some we cannot.

What unifies us, though, is our pursuit of wisdom. We all seek it. Wisdom is an aspiration that dates back to humanity’s beginnings, a concept remarkably consistent over millennia and cultures. We all want the same thing.

So what exactly is wisdom? What do we look for in others? In ourselves and in our homes? In our lives. On the ballot?

Based on current research, wisdom consists of seven distinct components. First and foremost are pro-social behaviors like compassion, empathy and altruism. Humans are social animals. We are hard-wired to need each other, and we fare best when we work together toward a common good. When we do not step out of our own minds (and interests), we fail not just those around us, our communities and society, but also ourselves.

Next comes emotional regulation, which is exactly as it sounds: the ability to leverage your emotions to the best possible advantage—not just yours but others’ too. There are times when emotions like fear, anger or joy should be keenly felt or exercised and times when they should be tempered by reason and your brain’s frontal lobes. Nature depends upon homeostasis—an equilibrium of forces—and so too does a wise person.

Wise people possess the ability of self-reflection and insight. They can look at themselves, unvarnished, and see where they can improve and become better persons. Similarly, they accept the reality of diversity. Other people have other perspectives; their opinions are shaped by their own brain’s biology and different experiences. These differences, no matter how strange or off-putting, need to be acknowledged and respected.

Wisdom also demands decisiveness. If a situation demands action, action is taken based upon all known considerations. Deciding not to act can be an act in itself.

And wisdom is shared. It makes no sense, it benefits no one, if lessons learned in life are not shared with others in good faith and intention.

Spirituality is the latest component added to the empirical definition of wisdom. It does not mean a wise person belongs to a particular religion or faith, but rather that they find meaning, solace and inspiration in something bigger than themselves, whether it be God, Mother Nature or the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos.

As voters, but more importantly, as members of a wondrously sprawling and diverse society, we seek wisdom in our leaders to help ensure we might all lead rich and fulfilling lives. It can seem hopeless at times, but the good news is that because wisdom is based in biology, it can be measured and modified, not unlike exercising to build stronger muscles.

We can actively work to make ourselves wiser. Voting and voting wisely is an act of practical wisdom. If we choose wise leaders, they will help make the rest of the society wiser too. Then everyone wins.

Dilip V. Jeste, MD, is director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging and a distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. With Scott LaFee, he is the author of “Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good.”