Power Causes Brain Damage

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.
—-Power Causes Brain Damage — How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise

There is a lot more in the article, of course. I found it fascinating.


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13 Responses to Power Causes Brain Damage

  1. Rummuser says:

    All Greek and Latin to me. Not my cup of tea. I never had power so my brain is still intact I think.
    Rummuser´s last blog post ..Marginal Utility.

    • Jean says:

      I like science, sometimes it finds surprising things.

      I’ve never been interested in power over other people, but I have taught Transforming Stress Into Personal Power. Mostly about looking at the opportunities in adversity rather than being crushed by it. Yes, I know, that’s not your cup of tea either but for me it’s been an adventure.

  2. Linda Sand says:

    Fascinating! But not so surprising when I think about it.

    • Jean says:

      Not surprising at all given all the examples we have seen. But it is fun to learn some science behind it. 🙂

  3. Looney says:

    Ah, so my brain is perfectly healthy because I have never had any power!
    Looney´s last blog post ..A California Marmot

  4. Cathy in NZ says:

    I read that initially as something to do with “putting your brain onto charge through electrical currents” a bit like charging up your phone – I see it’s not about that kind of power at all…

  5. Hence the saying, “Power corrupts…absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We just need to look around, don’t we?
    Still the Lucky Few´s last blog post ..The Hidden, Internal Language of Loneliness

  6. tammy j says:

    I tend to be a ‘skimmer’ in reading and understanding that kind of thing.
    I can see you could get very deep very fast!
    but yes. it is fascinating.
    and when you think about it many examples come to mind.
    that is… if i’m correctly understanding it!
    I can easily see how it would appeal to you. 🙂
    tammy j´s last blog post ..moving on old bean

    • Jean says:

      I imagine few people would be interested in the details, but it is interesting that they can start to understand why power corrupts.

  7. Joared says:

    What’s going on in our brain, chemically, etc., triggered by our self-talk language, emotions, has more impact on our behavior — or vice versa — than most people realize, so am not surprised by this power research results.
    Joared´s last blog post ..NET NEUTRALITY — HEAT WAVE

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