Humanity is psychopathic: this is the hypothesis of the neuroscientist Sebastien Bohler. In his latest book*, he sheds light on the psychic structure of humanity which, according to him, is similar to that of the psychopath. It is the species that most endangers the future of the planet, and therefore its own…
What is your assumption based on?
We are facing the observation of the powerlessness of the individual. Other mechanisms have, in fact, taken over. The “global brain” has taken precedence over individual brains. A collective system now determines individuals and their behavior. However, when we observe this “global brain” and consider it from a clinical point of view, one sees appearing correspondences with the psychic structure of the psychopath: the oversized ego, the manipulation, the absence of empathy and the irresponsibility.
“Man has the double capacity to behave like a psychopath towards external groups and, at the same time, to be endowed with empathy inside his own group.”
How do you explain that individuals, taken in isolation, are not psychopaths and that collectively they become so?
It is the deep nature of man. To survive, the man must be able to turn from time to time into a psychopath in the face of designated enemies. It draws its strength from the group and can sometimes become, within the group, a machine for destruction: whether to kill a mammoth in order to feed itself or, in the worst case, as history has shown, to attack other human groups, or even commit genocide. Man has the double capacity to behave like a psychopath towards external groups and, at the same time, to be endowed with empathy within his own group. Man is therefore a kind of janus: he has compassion for his fellows and can be potentially monstrous towards what is distinct from him, what he esteems as such. His ability to dehumanize himself is boundless.
“We have created a distance between the human world and the non-human world by silencing our empathy for the latter.”
You show that our capacity for empathy towards living things and other species is weaker than towards our fellow human beings. How can we explain it?
For a very long time, man has been in contact with animals. Spirits or souls were granted to animals, for example. Gradually, everything fell apart. The animal became marketable and humans lived further away from natural environments. The great religions claimed that the essence of man was to be distinct from the living. Next, rationalist modernity endorsed a animal enslavement programwhich marked the end of the kinship between the human and the non-human. We have thus established a distance between the human world and the non-human world by silencing our empathy for the latter. That’s the problem: the brain is able to turn off its empathy…
And this is precisely what we observe in the psychopath…
This is precisely what is deficient in psychopaths, yes. A hub of empathy in the brain is the orbitofrontal cortex. It is present in each of us, but we can turn it off to transform ourselves, for example, into an aggressive community.. It has been discovered that in psychopaths, the orbitofrontal cortex is turned off by default. It’s as if this part of the brain is “off”, as if there is an on/off button. However, it has recently been shown that it is possible to get a psychopath to feel empathy through a form of intellectual exercise.
“We are not born socialized, we become it.”
How does this orbitofrontal cortex become operational?
To function, the orbitofrontal cortex needs data. These can be provided by education, for example. So there is a socialization of the cortex. We are not born socialized, we become it. This process takes place in individuals. But, as far as humanity is concerned, it is different: it has never been socialized. Somehow, humanity is a being isolated from everything. She never had a guide.
“Overstimulated by capitalism, the striatum, a structure of our brain, prevents man from limiting himself to produce and consume. And this is in particular the reason why he cannot stop destroying the planet. ”
Does the neoliberal system accentuate the psychopathy of humanity?
The system creates a headlong rush, notably by relying on the insane dogma of infinite growth. Capitalism is a machine created to satisfy and produce ever more. It constantly promotes individual urges, instead of generating the ability to resist them. However, the impossibility of resisting one’s own impulses is precisely what falls under psychopathy, just like the immediate desire for gratification and the inability to project oneself into the future.
Capitalism feeds the striatum, a very old structure of our brain. Its function is to release dopamine, the pleasure hormone, when performing certain actions. The striatum will thus guide us, direct our deep motivations. The hallmark of the striatum is weariness. If you are given the same food every day, the striatum initially sends signs of reward. Then, the only way to increase dopamine thresholds is to increase the doses. The current system of consumption works in this way and will push us to have a bigger car, a better social status, a new phone, etc. Neo-liberalism makes us permanently impatient. Overstimulated by capitalism, the striatum thus prevents man from limiting himself to produce and consume. And that’s one of the reasons why he can’t stop destroying the planet.
“We could consider cutting man off from nature, because we are not a good species for the planet”
You are considering different solutions. For example, that of locking up humanity… Does this solution really seem realistic to you?
Yes, it is a possibility, as we tend to self-contain through the ages. Demographic data tends to show that humanity lives more and more in urbanized environments. What we experienced with the recent confinements can constitute a tempting vision in terms of psychic balances: a return to the local and to self-sufficiency. We could consider cutting man off from nature, because we are not a good species for the planet. It would be a form of self-sacrificial attitude which would consist in leaving nature in peace.
“True freedom consists in integrating the notion of limit and frustration.”
We are living in the “last decades of the reign of individual freedoms”, you write. Why ?
Individual freedom has become philosophical nonsense. What do we put behind the concept of freedom today? The freedom to travel, the freedom to buy what we want, etc.. The freedom that we currently defend is that which consists in giving free rein to our impulses. But Enlightenment freedom has nothing to do with it. There is a huge project to reopen on the subject of freedoms. Freedom reduced to the freedom to consume can no longer last. True freedom consists in integrating the notion of limit and frustration. We have also noticed that those to whom we give everything are those who have the impression that their freedom is constantly limited.
“We have become the spoiled children of growth.”
Why can’t we control ourselves?
There is a productive constraint to which we are not accustomed: the limitation of our desires seems unbearable to us. We have become the spoiled children of growth. Unable to self-discipline, however, our demand for restraint is on the rise. We currently observe the will of peoples to choose tyrants or dictators. This is obviously not the solution. Individuals’ brains must be armed to enable them to limit themselves.
“We could consider a tool, an IT resource, for example, available to companies or decision-makers that would help them make the best choices.”
You imagine the creation of a kind of “orbitofrontal platform”. How do you envision it working?
We need a transnational instance that plays the role of this orbitofrontal cortex. We could imagine a system that allows us to precisely calculate the consequences of our projects, which allows us, for example, to see natural resources as more than just a means. We could consider a tool, an IT resource, for example, available to companies or decision-makers that would help them make the best choices. The main idea would be to defuse the manipulation drive.
“We know that the human brain is made to maintain a relationship with 150 individuals. No more. Which means that this hyper-connected world is absolutely not for us.”
You also imagine a way to limit the hyper-connected nature of humanity. How to conceive of a disconnection on a collective scale?
It seems unlikely that a technology developed for commercial purposes will put itself on hold. But it can come from humans themselves. We know that the human brain is made to maintain a relationship with 150 individuals. No more. Which means that this hyper-connected world does not suit us at all. We are unsuited to the world we have created. We would live better in small communities. But how to preserve the universalist ideal while promoting a more local life? The problem is that today we are witnessing a desire for relocation which often takes the form of the rejection of the other.
*Human Psycho, Sebastien Bohler, Books, 272 p., €19