Boris Cyrulnik, neuropsychiatrist: ‘There are traumas that the patient cannot talk about, but they can be overcome with sports’

The French ethologist, one of the fathers of the concept of resilience, delves into the healing power of grassroots sports

Boris Cyrulnik Psiquiatra Salud Mental
Ethologist and neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik. Photo courtesy of his publisher.
Enrique Alpañés

Boris Cyrulnik (Bordeaux, France, 1937) has dedicated his life to explaining how people can recover after trauma. His trauma happened one night when he was barely six years old: four armed German officers surrounded his bed and detained him. It took him a while to understand the reason. He did not even know very well the meaning of the word “Jew,” he recounts in his book Sauve-toi, la vie t’appelle (in English: Save yourself, life is calling you). “Flashlight in one hand, revolver in the other, felt hat, dark glasses, coat with a raised collar… so this is how you dress when you want to kill a child,” he writes.

But he was not killed. He was not even detained for long. Cyrulnik spent the next few years hiding from the Gestapo. His parents suffered a worse fate: both were deported to Auschwitz. He never saw them again. He escaped from Bordeaux and went to work on a farm under an assumed name while France was occupied by the Nazis. All these events would push him to study neuropsychiatry — the science of the soul, as he himself defines it. “When a scientist chooses a topic of science, this topic is already rooted in his own experience,” he explains via video call. He did it to understand what had happened to him, but also to rebel against it. “After the war, people told me: you don’t have a family, you didn’t go to school, you’re a lost cause. But I opposed that prophecy.”

This ethologist and neuropsychiatrist achieved worldwide fame as one of the fathers of the concept of resilience, which he defines as the ability to overcome trauma. He is an unofficial advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron, for whom he analyzes everything from the needs of kindergartens to the extension of paternity leave. He is also a prolific writer, with more than 20 books dedicated to delving into the concept of resilience from a humanistic and scientific point of view. In J’aime le sport de petit niveau (in English: I love low-level sports), one of his latest books, he reflects on the social role of play, physical exercise and the spectacularization of sports.

According to Cyrulnik, sports can help us heal wounds. “There are issues that are difficult to face, there are traumas that the patient cannot talk about at a certain moment, but they can be overcome with sports,” he points out. That is why his study groups always included a neurologist, a psychologist, a biologist and an athlete. Also, on occasion, he would include a musician or a comedian, as those are also disciplines with which trauma can be faced. “They were very heterogeneous groups,” he recalls with a smile.

This is true anywhere, but in the most conflictive contexts, where many kids escape violence through sports, is where their power as a tool of resilience is most evident. Cyrulnik has worked in the Brazilian favelas and in the most marginal neighborhoods of Colombia. “The children were overcoming very harsh contexts, and the musicians and soccer players were the role models,” he explains. “It is a very useful tool in crime prevention.”

In these contexts, he continues, repression had the opposite effect: the neighborhood hero was the one who confronted the police. But with campaigns that promoted sports, the narrative changed; the hero was now the best soccer player, the best runner. In the end, the same basic mechanism operates in both cases, since “a human group, a neighborhood, a people, needs a hero to represent it. Their purpose is to revalue the group.”

Neighborhood and professional sports

When we are little, we play, just like many mammals do, explains Cyrulnik in his book. It is a way to train for future scenarios. To practice hunting, flight, war. “But from the moment young people develop the capacity for fiction, pleasure changes its source. There is no longer pleasure in running, but in running faster than the other,” he says. This is how sports begin, by creating a framework of conventions. A set of rules to get the game on track. That is, the ethologist believes, what sets us apart from animals.

Children play soccer at a field in the Morro favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 08 , 2022
Teenagers play soccer at the Morro favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Anadolu (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Greeks were the first to codify these rules. They were also the first to associate the beauty of the human body with the practice of sports, with the Olympic Games. In fact, athletes used to compete naked and covered in oil. Beauty was part of a social discourse, and sports were a means to display it. This may resonate in the way sports are currently conceived, with athletes displaying their bodies as another advertising technique, or with crowded gyms in a utilitarian, individualistic, practical vision of exercise. Sports understood as an end to achieve a canonical body, not as a means to socialize and have fun.

Cyrulnik prefers team sports, those that have a more social component, as he believes that minds can only be shaped together. However, he warns that physical activity is always necessary. “We have to play sports, any sport, because our new culture is a sedentary one. Otherwise, we can spend the whole day in front of a screen. We can spend the whole day sitting at a table,” he reflects.

He also points out that grassroots sports are better than professional sports: while the former are “part of the culture,” the latter are “part of the spectacle.” He believes that there is a social component to it; that the game does not end in the field, but at the bar. Cyrulnik understands that it is a way of creating bonds, moralizing and fictionalizing small feats without the need for violence. The healing properties of neighborhood games have to do with moving, socializing and feeling part of a group, and that should be better than consuming the exploits of others with catatonic passivity, as much as this makes us feel part of a group, and regardless of the social component that comes from sharing a common interest.

His reservations about professional sports go one step further, becoming a criticism of voracious capitalism. “Starting in the 20th century, the organizations that created sporting events began to be structured as a company,” he points out. “Today everything is very spectacularized, and everything ends up at the service of marketing.”

And resilience went mainstream

When Cyrulnik began to talk about resilience in the 1990s, he had to repeat the word over and over, as people were not sure what he meant. Today, it is everywhere, having become a totemic word used by politicians, influencers and businesspeople. “I have experienced this with great pleasure, and also with anxiety,” he acknowledges.

The term has its origins in physics. It refers to a material’s ability to resist an impact and return to its original shape. It was the perfect metaphor. A viral idea. A quick Google search yields more than 900 million results; on Amazon, more than 20,000 books come up. But when a concept reaches that level of popularity, its meaning risks being diluted, as the original idea becomes warped to fit anyone’s interpretation. Or to sell t-shirts.

“Somebody who works on the ground, a laborer, knows very well what resilience is,” says the neuropsychiatrist. “But people far from this reality, politicians, for example, can use it with totally different connotations. It’s almost a contradiction. They use it to tell people: ‘You sort it out by yourself.’ That is the opposite of resilience, which is a concept that is based on the need of the other.”

Resilience is based on cooperation. On the idea that our brain is a sculpture, and that, despite the blows, we can remold it, return it to its original shape, with the help of another. This applies to sports and to any other field. That is why the ethologist warns of the drift of an increasingly individualistic society. “It is an illusion to believe that you can understand yourself by remaining alone. That is a Cartesian thought. An individualistic idea. When I worked in Japan I was told that the individual vision is a Western way of thinking,” he remarks.

The author concludes by praising cooperation, even if it is to compete or to confront ideas. He advocates for discussion based on respect. Although he starts with a sports analogy, he extrapolates his discourse to something bigger. “I need to be in an argument with you to stimulate my brain. I can only become myself if you are here, close to me,” he points out. “That is why we need rituals to live in society. Political, conversational and behavioral rituals, to contain our competitiveness and our anger. To confront narratives and ideologies.”

When we abandon these rituals, he says, brutality ensues. In all these years, Cyrulnik has not been able to understand the mechanisms that push a society to war. And this incomprehension is not limited to the past. “I also can’t understand what is being heard right now,” he says in reference to the current wars. “Today I can hear the same discourse, the same speaking, coming back in another language, but the same words, the same arguments.” What Cyrulnik has begun to understand is how people can survive these events, and sports seem to play a key role in this.

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