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Idriss Aberkane,

 journey to the heart of the brain

Nothing more closely resembles a human brain than another human brain… and yet some people develop prodigious, extraordinary aptitudes. Why? How? Welcome to the circumvoluted world of gray matter, as described by Idriss Aberkane, neuroscience expert and author of the bestseller Free your brain, published by Robert Laffont.

How does the brain of a prodigy work?

“Mental athletes” have the distinctive ability of associating several regions of the brain in an extremely powerful way. Their brains are physiologically identical to those of the average individual. They have the same number of neurons. And even when these brains are super-trained, they do not grow, instead remaining “modestly” housed in the same skull. With these people, it’s not the hard disk that’s different, but rather the operating system, which they use in a more ergonomic manner, setting up connections between several areas that most of us activate separately. This enables a “mental calculator” like Rüdiger Gamm to develop outstanding abilities, such as dividing prime numbers to the 60th decimal point.

Is that what you call neuro-ergonomics?

Neuro-ergonomics is indeed the art of optimizing the use of the human brain, by spreading the weight of a problem across several zones, and also by fitting mental objects with handles. Aren’t suitcases easier to pick up when equipped with a handle? The same goes for memorizing a code. We can associate with it various elements, images that mean something to us like a birthday or anniversary date, a face or the name of a department: all these are handles placed on mental objects. Let’s take a concrete example. Imagine that you are looking at a water bottle which represents a mathematical problem to be solved and your hand is the brain that must pick up the bottle. To accomplish this task, most of us use only our pinky finger (symbolizing working memory), which proves tricky! Conversely, brilliant mental calculators pick up the bottle with their entire hand, using all their fingers: working memory, along with spatial memory, episodic memory (which enables us to remember an event linked to a certain context), as well as procedural memory (that allows us to intuitively realize things that we would find it very hard to explain, such as a knotting a tie).

Do we all have the potential to become geniuses?

I’m one of those who think that we all start out with the same abilities and that some people use them, whereas others don’t. Why? The more we study geniuses, the more we realize that they are not born with a special brain. They are however all driven by a powerful, or even obsessive desire to develop mental capacity. And they always do it for pleasure. Thus, by dint of exercising their passion for thousands of hours with a degree of attention proportionate to their appetency, they become experts. It’s somewhat as if they were honing their brain like a diamond. Neuroscience investigations show that a love of learning is the most effective motivation for intensely exercising a given physical or mental operation, a task that would seem a chore for anyone else. Not a single great chef or top-flight athlete has ever succeeded out of obligation. From Mozart to Usain Bolt, or Wim Klein who could mentally calculate the 73rd root of a 500-digit number, all achieve such levels of performance because they love what they do.

Among the prodigies, geniuses, the great figures that have changed the world and revolutionized our lives, many have had checkered academic backgrounds…

It is indeed true that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both college dropouts, while Einstein was regarded as a dunce. And for the few geniuses who succeed, many disheartened talents have doubtless never come to light! Education must challenge existing methods, reinvent itself and give itself the means to captivate all students – especially atypical personalities and passionate minds who struggle more than others to find mental excitement to match their high demands, and who are all too often judged negatively. That reminds me of an enlightening experiment conducted in the 1960s by an American teacher named Jane Elliott, in agreement with her pupils’ parents. In her classroom, she placed those with blue eyes on the right and the others on the left. She explained to them that it had been scientifically proven that blue eyes were related to superior intelligence, and she began to treat them as the elite, giving them preferential treatment, while the others were considered to be good-for-nothings who only deserved her neglect. Within 48 hours, the maths level among the blue-eyed cohort had increased, while that of the non-blue-eyed pupils had plummeted. This shows that when you convince someone they are a poor student, they become so, because their brain sends them this famous message that has resulted in countless scholastic failures: “don’t even try!”.

How do you see the future of neuroscience ?

Scientific progress is advancing at an amazing pace and could soon enable us to transfer experiences and emotions from one brain to another! Terrifying? Fascinating? What we will do with forthcoming discoveries will above all depend on our capacity to accompany them with neuro-wisdom. The writer Isaac Asimov once commented that a society in which there is much knowledge but little wisdom is doomed to extinction. History has repeatedly confirmed this, notably in the 20th century with the example of Japan, a nation that was technologically highly advanced during World War II, yet nonetheless committed terrible atrocities. If breakthroughs in neuroscience are not matched by strong and solid ethics, they could lead to serious consequences – whereas if they are well used, they will doubtless lead to a cure for those suffering from Parkinson’s, bipolar disorders or schizophrenia. They will also enable us to gain an ever-deeper understanding of our brain’s learning mechanisms, in order to develop ever more interesting, effective, high-performance teaching methods. That is what I wish for more than anything. 

Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters

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