7 May 2021
Scientific and journalist for the journal "Cerveau & Psycho", Sébastien Bohler explores the functioning of the brain based on studies by psychologists and neurobiologists.
You are a Polytechnician, doctor in neurosciences: can you tell us about your career?
I am Alsatian by birth! I spent my childhood there, I love this region. I returned there to do my preparatory classes for engineering school competitions, after spending a few years with my family in Luxembourg.
At Lycée Kléber in Strasbourg, I began to discover the depth of math, the analytical power of physics to decipher our world, the universe ...
In 1992, I joined the Ecole Polytechnique, and I became more and more passionate about the physics of elementary particles, the heart of matter of which we humans are made, as well as all the things that surround us: flowers, pebbles or black holes ... But without addressing the big question: what are our thoughts made of? What is a human being? It was when I left Polytechnique that I decided to do a thesis in neuroscience at the Institut Pasteur. Understanding the mechanisms of how our neurons work is almost an existential challenge!
At this point in time arise precisely the questions that come from afar, from philosophy, from metaphysics: is our mind only a machine that works with electric currents and chemical molecules, in our brain? I find it fascinating to write on these subjects, to confront these questions to the general public. And I find myself creating a journal that wants to do just that: to bring neuroscience into a new understanding of man. It will be "Cerveau & Psycho", of which I am today the editor-in-chief, and which has the originality of giving the floor to researchers who do neuroscience, to put these revolutionary notions within the reach of all minds, to bring our citizens to marvel and reflect on what makes a human.
And during all this time, I never let go of my pen: this data which is bubbling from everywhere, which comes up from laboratories all over the world, must be organized in the form of discourse, structured in an analysis. I then wrote neuroscience essays, including The Human Bug, which questions the place of man on his planet, and his destructive instinct which could lead him to ruin.
What do we know about the brain and, above all, what fields of study are still unexploited about it?
We know a thousand times more about our brain today than a century ago. Its structure, the formidable development of its cortex, the external and folded part that gives us language, abstract thinking, the capacity for planning.
But we also better detail what is most irrational, where our desires, our desires, our hatred, our fears, our memories come from. Often times, these feelings originate from more buried, deeper and older areas of our brain. Because this is yet another thing that has come to revolutionize our view of humans: the way we think, how we love, how we act, is determined in part by structures in the brain that have met criteria for survival.
Emotions are used to avoid dangers, or to fight, or to socialize. They have been effective for millions of years, in a hostile environment, for humans who lived in groups of a few dozen individuals. But today, in a world connecting millions of people, hypertechnical, they are sometimes inadequate and lead us to make mistakes. Of which the most fatal: the progressive destruction of living things for our simple comfort!
I have the impression that we have entered an era where a critical mass of knowledge has been reached, and where the challenge is to fully understand what this knowledge has for consequences for our choices, for our vision of Homo Sapiens. and to regain control of our destiny.
There will be no freedom of action without an understanding of the inner springs of our psyche, and the invisible bondages they produce.
Your book "The human bug: Why our brains push us to destroy the planet and how to prevent it" is an editorial success: according to you, our brain, addicted to dopamine for hundreds of thousands of years, is partly responsible for our inaction against global warming. Can you explain your point of view to us?
Dopamine is a double-edged sword: it “rewards” us by making us happy when we do things that are important to our survival. It is a mechanism embedded deep in our brains. It helped us survive in ancient times.
This is why our brains release dopamine when we perform these basic behaviors that have been necessary for the survival of our species. However, these behaviors are basic: eat as much as possible (a vital reflex for our ancestors, especially when food was scarce), have as many sexual relations as possible (it was crucial when infant mortality decimated the ranks of our ancestors), acquire power and status (because this increased your influence and your chances of survival in a hostile environment), make as little effort as possible (to save yourself in a situation of scarcity), be hungry for information (to find game, for example).
The great change in human history has been the incredible development of technology, from the wheel and the plow to the Internet and computers. However, these inventions were used to serve these five basic needs: intensive agriculture to have more to eat, the Internet to consume sex online or to obtain social status on social networks, household appliances, the car and machine tools to minimize our efforts, and digital telecommunications to feed our thirst for information. Result: these needs turn into bulimia and we do not know how to stop.
Dopamine becomes, no longer an instrument of survival, but a vector of addictions. To feel alive, we need more and more, to grow, whether in our material possessions or in the GDP of nations, through economic growth. Our brain's trap is there: we no longer know how to stop, because this system has never been set up to limit itself. Now all of a sudden it turns against us, with all the environmental damage it causes.
The biases of our brain can therefore also limit us in our more individual actions, in our interactions with other human beings, in our work ... intolerance?
Our brains have a wonderful ability called empathy. It is the gift of feeling what others are feeling, of coming into emotional resonance with him, of sharing his emotions and of helping him if desired. But research now shows that this empathy can be "turned off", almost on command, as soon as the differences between individuals are emphasized. Whether it is ethnic, religious, linguistic differences ...
From then on, the compassion machine becomes a destruction machine, which operates in a mode of denial of empathy, which is a characteristic of psychopathy ...
Continuing to reach out and empathize with differences means feeling the essential closeness that exists between human beings, and even between humans and animals. When we emphasize differences, we often do so out of fear or because the surrounding rhetoric calls for it.
The media discourse which today racializes many social issues is thus a double-edged sword because it can set in motion these mechanisms of extinction of empathy and create zones of rupture and dehumanization.
Is there a recipe for combating these biases?
If we stay on the question of empathy and tolerance, we must see these qualities as plastic data. They are set up during childhood, thanks to a parental or educational discourse which teaches the young person to adopt the point of view of the other, to relativize his own opinions, to rely on the facts and not to cookie-cutter judgments.
We must also pay attention to the effect of social networks which tend, as some studies have shown, to reduce empathic behavior through the anonymization of participants, distance, the lack of real human contact.
Moreover, it is striking to note that on issues of tolerance (anti-racism, parity, domestic or sexual violence, transgender), the discourse is often categorizing, rejecting or monolithic. As if we were unable to implement this ability to take a perspective that we demand from others.
In your last book, "Where is the meaning ?", you recall that the quest for meaning and altruism are essential, even vital. How can we find meaning in our daily life and our over-connected lives?
Meaning is a basic human need. Since the dawn of time humans have sought to understand the world because it was their best asset for surviving in a nature where other animals were stronger, faster, or more enduring than him. It is not for nothing that the need for meaning is, as Camus said, viscerally anchored in man. It's not for nothing that neuroscience today reveals that even part of our brain is constantly searching for what makes sense around us, in us and in our relationships with others.
What I explain in "Where is the meaning" is that our societies have long survived thanks to this need to find meaning together, because that was what pushed men to create systems of shared representation of the world. , moral value systems and rituals. We still see today how the human brain continues to respond to these fundamental anthropological functions.
But at the turn of the Renaissance, the West abandoned this need for meaning in favor of a desire for power and control. It is the Cartesian program to become as master and owner of nature, much more than to understand it, to decipher it, to make it familiar, which will be the real project of the coming century.
The tragedy for us - and we are not yet awakened from this nightmare - is that by killing meaning, humanity has not let go of its visceral need for meaning. This need is therefore unmet, and the consequences are dramatic. We lost the thread of our lives because of it. And with that we lost the connection with others and with nature.
This loss of meaning is seen in our brain, where cascades of biochemical reactions are activated resulting in a state of stress, anxiety and discomfort, which we try to fill with more consumption, distraction or discomfort. addictions which are substitutes for meaning. But that only leads to further destruction of our planet. We have to recreate meaning.
There are important ingredients for this, which come mainly from the analysis of the human brain. This reacts very positively to collective rituals (which have almost disappeared), to the adequacy between personal convictions and actions (today more than 50% of French people experience a conflict of values at work) and to representations of the world. shared (formerly the world was hierarchized between the material plane, the spiritual plane, hell and paradise, etc.). We must recreate a system of representation of the world because our brain needs it.
You say that, despite the comforts of the modern world, we are less and less happy ... and that we have to activate another part of our brain. Can you explain to us?
Our civilization was built on a principle: happiness depends on the ability to have sufficient comfort, material goods, freedom to consume and move. But there is no way out. We see it today. The human bug shows why our "reptilian" brain never has enough comfort, power or pleasure. So he always wants more. He does not know satisfaction, only the amplification of desires. Is there any happiness possible under these conditions? Obviously, no.
Brain analysis suggests several ways to escape this spiral. First, rediscover pleasure in its noble dimension, through moderation. It was the Socratic ideal. And even that of Epicurus. True hedonism is not the inflation of desires. It is the ability to savor. And, for that, to cultivate the consciousness of pleasure. Consciousness is a part of the brain that we do not develop enough, and which can be developed by the approach of the long term, by mindfulness meditation, by "less" to obtain "more". We have data that shows that it works.
Selflessness is the second way. Selfless sharing can boost brain dopamine, and there is some measurable evidence to support this. It is therefore a question of making it an axis that is valued socially, because that is often what is lacking. The values of the company are not altruism and compassion. These are “fake” values. In truth, what remains the bedrock of individual success is personal success, income, power, money. And that can't release dopamine from altruism. We must therefore reflect on values and on the means to make them tangible through public, media and educational discourse. Especially since the path of meaning can only be found through values, and we know that this path is likely to activate another connection in our brain, a source of appeasement.
Finally, knowledge as such has the power to release dopamine from our brain. This time, there is no need for screens, cars, trips to the other side of the world, smartphones replaced every year, and designer handbags. Pleasure is achieved through transmission, thirst for knowledge, mental growth. These are not just ideas, they are effects measured by medical imaging of the brain. But inertia is a formidable enemy, and our world may be too sick to have time to regroup.
If you had the chance, what would you do to change the world?
What I just said above. Man has two powers: to constantly increase his power of action on the world - this path is doomed - or to transmit. Share through teaching, learning, curiosity, self-development through wonder and knowledge.
Those in the trade know that they don't need much more. So to teach is to create the humans of tomorrow, and they can be knowledge junkies, with zero carbon impact. And educated humans make better decisions, without giving in to their impulses.
Teleworking does not prevent coming back to the office face-to-face. Telecommuting is not a total exclusion from the business. But it does not compensate for and replace real relationships. But that makes them all the more expected and desirable. So it is something that maintains the link, which supports and assists reality, but which does not in any way replace the beauty of real relationships.
If you could time travel, what advice would you give to the child that you were?
I would tell him to wake up faster. Define your priorities earlier. I had no idea we had so little time left.