Photography: David Sander, © CISA - Sophie Jarlier
Q: There has been much talk about neuroscience in recent years. Could you define what neuroscience is in a few words?
DS: What is neuroscience? There are at least two ways of defining what it is. The first is to define neuroscience by the fact that the brain is a focus for study in its own right; in which case a neuroscientist can be defined as someone who studies the brain and wishes to understand the brain’s structure and the way in which it functions. That would be the first general way of defining neuroscience.
The second would be to define neuroscience by the fact that it corresponds to an approach, a discipline, a subject area or even a perspective: this could mean that we could be interested in psychology in general with a neuroscientific approach. We might be interested in how our brains make possible perception, attention, memory, learning forms, language, reasoning, decision-making and, of course, emotions.
The idea could therefore be to try and understand the complexity of psychological phenomena by taking an interest in the brain because we are obviously well aware that psychological processes happen within the brain’s complex architecture. However, in such a case, the focus of study itself would not typically be the brain, but could be memory, emotions, decision-making and, as is increasingly the case, school learning, from a neuroscientific point of view.
Q: In your opinion what are the most striking elements that account for the attention paid to neuroscience in recent years?
DS: Over possibly the last 10 to 15 years there have been enormous developments in neuroscientific research, particularly with regard to its impact on society and public interest in the study of the brain. This fascinates many people, and rightly so! There are certainly a number of reasons for such a keen interest. One reason, I think, has to do with methodology, that is to say over, perhaps, the last 20 years techniques have been developed that make it possible to measure brain activity non-invasively; for example, functional magnetic resonance imaging is a fascinating method that allows researchers to analyse the various regions of the brain involved in the various forms of perception, emotion, decision-making or this or that form of learning.
Researchers now have models of how the brain functions and the fact of observing the brain’s activity, in my opinion, goes some way towards explaining this passion that people have for the brain. Another reason stems from the fact that people with quite specific forms of brain damage have quite specific psychological and behavioural problems, leading to the fact that everybody now realises that there is a link between certain areas of the brain and certain psychological or behavioural problems; everybody is therefore now aware of this quite direct relationship between human complexity and the complexity of the brain.
Not only do these methodological aspects exist but so does the explanatory aspect, that is, there is the impression that once we will have really understood how the brain works, we will have understood many things about human nature, the human mind, about social interactions or even about learning situations.
Therefore all human situations clearly have a counterpart in terms of brain activity and we now have many tools to try and measure that. Hence the fascination that I think almost everyone has for the brain.