The science of wisdom in evolution is based on the idea that the defined traits of wisdom correspond to different regions of the brain, and that greater wisdom translates into greater happiness and satisfaction with life, while being less wise gives as a result opposite negative consequences.
Scientists have found in multiple studies that people who consider themselves wiser are less likely to feel lonely, while those who are more lonely also tend to be less wise.
In a new study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine delve into the connection between wisdom, loneliness, and biology, reporting that wisdom and loneliness appear to influence (and / or be influenced by) microbial diversity. of the intestine.
The human gut microbiota is made up of trillions of microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi) that reside within the digestive tract. Researchers have known for some time the “gut-brain axis,” which is a complex network that links gut function to the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain.
This two-way communication system is regulated by neuronal activity, hormones, and the immune system; The disturbances can result in disruptions in stress response and behaviors, the authors said, from emotional arousal to higher-order cognitive skills such as decision-making.
Previous studies have associated the gut microbiota with mental health disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, as well as psychological and personality traits considered key components of biologically based wisdom.
Recent research has connected the gut microbiome to social behavior, including findings that people with larger social networks tend to have more diverse gut microbiota.
The new Frontiers in psychiatry The study involved 187 participants, ages 28 to 97, who completed validated measures based on self-reports of loneliness, wisdom, compassion, social support, and social engagement. The intestinal microbiota was analyzed using fecal samples.
The microbial gut diversity was measured in two ways: alpha diversity, which refers to the ecological richness of the microbial species within each individual, and beta diversity, which refers to the differences in the composition of the microbial community between individuals.
“We found that lower levels of loneliness and higher levels of wisdom, compassion, social support, and commitment were associated with greater phylogenetic richness and diversity of the gut microbiome,” said first author Tanya T. Nguyen, PhD, assistant professor. of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
The authors said the mechanisms that may link loneliness, compassion and wisdom to gut microbial diversity are not known, but they noted that reduced microbial diversity generally represents poorer physical and mental health, and is associated with a variety of diseases. , including obesity, inflammation. bowel disease and major depressive disorder.
A more diverse gut microbiota may be less susceptible to invasion by external pathogens, which could contribute to and help promote better community resilience and stability.
“It is possible that loneliness may result in decreased stability of the gut microbiome and consequently reduced resistance and resilience to stress-related disruptions, leading to later physiological effects, such as systemic inflammation. “wrote the authors.
“Bacterial communities with low alpha diversity may not manifest overt disease, but may be less than optimal for disease prevention. Therefore, lonely people may be more susceptible to developing different diseases. “
The relationship between loneliness and microbial diversity was particularly strong in older adults, suggesting that older adults may be especially vulnerable to the health-related consequences of loneliness, which is consistent with previous research.
On the contrary, the researchers said that social support, compassion and wisdom could confer protection against the instability of the gut microbiome related to loneliness. Healthy and diverse gut microflora can buffer the negative effects of chronic stress or help shape social behaviors that promote wisdom or loneliness. They noted that animal studies suggest that the gut microbiota may influence behaviors and social interactions, although the hypothesis has not been tested in humans.
The complexity of the subject and the limitations of the study, such as the absence of data on people’s social networks, diet, and the degree of objective social isolation in the face of subjective reports of loneliness, call for larger and longer studies, the authors wrote. authors.
“Loneliness can lead to changes in the gut microbiome or, conversely, disturbances of the gut environment can predispose an individual to feeling lonely,” said Dilip V. Jeste, MD, distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the School of Medicine of UC San Diego lead author of the article. “We need to do much more research to better understand the gut-brain axis phenomenon.”
We’ll be sure to share research updates on the fascinating potential links between what happens in the gut and what happens in the mind as they emerge.