US scientists may have identified the physiological basis of wisdom in human beings.
The findings, revealed by the Observer, are to be published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Study author Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California in San Diego, said: 'Our research suggests there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom's most universal traits.'
He and his colleague Thomas Meeks discovered that a person weighing up an issue that just called for an altruistic response used the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain.
This is linked to intelligence and learning.
But when someone is battling with a moral dilemma, other areas of the brain are used such as the parts linked to rational thought and primitive emotions.
Sophisticated brain scanning techniques have found that humans respond by activating areas associated with the primitive emotions of sex, fear and anger as well as our capability for abstract thought.
Mr Meeks said: 'Several brain regions appear to be involved in different components of wisdom. It seems to involve a balance between more primitive brain regions, like the limbic system, and the newest ones, such as the prefrontal cortex.'
The finding is a significant departure into an area of expertise that has long been regarded as one of religion and philosophy.
Such research has been made possible by the increasing sophistication of brain scanning techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
These allow researchers to see which parts of the brain become active when people undertake mental tasks.
Professor Jeste admitted the possibility that wisdom and free will are based on the make-up of someone's brain rather than metaphysics is unsettling.
But he said: 'Knowledge of the underlying mechanisms in the brain could potentially lead to developing interventions for enhancing wisdom.'