We can combat the virus by equipping governments with an arsenal of neurotech

Authorities are right to leverage biology in the current crisis but they should not ignore the benefits of neuroscience

A woman carrying grocery bags walks past a restaurant selling take away food in Paris on March 16, 2020, as all non-essential public places including restaurants and cafes have been closed to prevent the spread of the Covid-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. France will progressively reduce long-distance train, bus and plane travel over the coming days in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the government announced on March 15. The country has already shuttered cafes, restaurants, schools and universities and urged people to limit their movements. / AFP / Philippe LOPEZ
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On Saturday evening, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe introduced a new set of measures to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic in France. He and the President observed that the first measures taken to limit assemblies were "imperfectly applied". This sounds to me like blaming the people. However, individual responsibility matters. Governments, not just the French one, hold a significant responsibility as well for not using the most advanced scientific methodology to improve their communication and strategies of behaviour change.

All around the world, administrations have worked with physicians to create a set of medically sound guidelines aimed at slowing down the Covid-19 spread. As is often the case in public health communication and prevention, the belief is that informing people is sufficient to change their behaviour. False. If this were the case, no physician would be smoking.

In public health communication and prevention, the belief is that informing people is sufficient to change their behaviour. False. If this were the case, no physician would be smoking

Now, imagine a handful of government advisers that are not biologists or epidemiologists gathered in the meeting room of a ministry of health. After an intense day of theoretical work, they claim they have found a vaccine to cure Covid-19.

Do you think a vaccine developed by non-experts who conducted zero experiment would work? And would you be willing to try it? Something tells me I am not the only one who would answer a firm ‘No’ to both questions. Such a methodology being insanely dangerous.

This is not how the effort on finding a Covid-19 vaccine is being conducted. But more or less the modus operandi to design public health prevention and communication strategies in times of crisis. People who really understand our behaviours are not physicians, nor are they economists or policy makers in government task forces.

Those who master the science of persuasion, engagement and behaviour change are behavioural and brain scientists working for the consumer, entertainment and big tech industries. They use biometrics and neurotechnologies to conduct experiments. The brain data they collect, combined with a wealth of other information, are at the core of the design of apps we are glued to, the TV shows we binge watch, the delivery services that ease our lives and the products we cannot put down.

Why the need for neuroscience? Because relying on what one self-reports, looks at, smiles or frowns at is the human equivalent of observing the smoke of your car, listening to its noise and sensing its temperature. It adds up to sometimes useful peripheral data but that which does not tell the whole story. Nothing beats monitoring the engine, our brain, together with the various environments altering its functioning that matters as much as the brain itself.

Governments very rightly leverage biology in the current crisis but they should not  ignore the benefits of neuroscience. Especially the French government. In 2009, I became the head of the Neuroscience and Public Policy program. A world premiere at the Prime Minister’s Center for Strategic Analyses. With my team, we published the first ever government report introducing how to use neuroscientific methods and technologies to improve communication and prevention in public health. Advisers to former US President Barack Obama, and the British Government, including future Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler contributed. This report was released a decade ago – on March 16, 2010.

One could argue that French authorities ignored it because it was not good enough. Well, a dozen of governments and global organizations reached out to learn about our solutions informed by neuroscience, including the World Economic Forum (WEF) which later named me its global head of strategy in health and healthcare. There might have been a couple of things in this report that made sense after all.

The WEF understood early on that health and healthcare are not a just a medical matter but a systemic one. And neuroscience is of significant help to change health-related behaviours for the better.

Neuro-technologies can be used to accurately measure the effect of certain words on the reward circuit of the brain, a network that play a key role in our decisions. Being able to monitor the synchrony between the brain activity of multiple people interacting provides unprecedented insight on how trust evolves. Quite relevant to the current crisis, functional brain data was found to be a better predictor of the impact of a health-related behaviour change campaign than what people answered in a survey.

Last week, I flew from Atlanta to participate in meetings at the French Ministry of Health in Paris. The afternoon before French President Emmanuel Macron gave his address, I introduced physicians and inter-ministerial advisers to the latest benefits of using neurotech in health prevention. Most had never heard of it before and tried to shake my hand to thank me. Clearly the messaging on shaking hands had not yet sunk in.

Thanks to portable neurotechnologies brain data can now be recorded everywhere, participants no longer being stuck in medical and scientific facilities. Data processing no longer takes weeks. We can now collect and analyse brain data in real-time on thousands of workers stuck in their homes.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, I have spoken to many neurotech entrepreneurs and neuroscience leaders. Many like us are already working pro bono to test for the most effective Covid-19 health messaging strategy.

Brains matter. They are our best weapon to win the war against Covid-19. Governments can no longer avoid adding neurotech to their arsenal.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ