I Always Knew Powerful People Had Blind Spots – Now Neuroscience Has Proved It | Suzanne Alleyne

JThe thing that people with power don’t know is what it’s like to have little or no power. Minute by minute you are reminded of your place in the world: how hard it is to get out of bed if you have mental health issues, impossible to laugh or charm if you worry about what you are going to eat, and how not to not being seen can crush your sense of self.

I’m often in rooms with people who don’t understand that, people more educated than me, more privileged than me – people who are so used to having power that they don’t even know it’s there. I am a black female in my 50s, neurodiverse, and have multiple mental health diagnoses. Part of my job as a researcher and cultural thinker is to work with leaders in the arts, business and politics, helping them see the one thing they can’t see: the effects of power they wield.

But just pointing out this disparity can leave people feeling defensive. It can get you labeled an “angry black woman.” In the past, when I started telling people what it was like to have no power and how hard it was to understand, they wouldn’t listen. So I turned to science, to understand the effects of power in your body, to prove what I already knew, and get people to listen.

I call this research the neurology of power. This involves examining sociological explanations of power as well as neuroscientific underpinnings. Being in a state of helplessness leads to perpetual stress. This stress causes our bodies to be on high alert, compromising our productivity and happiness in situations where others – those who have never experienced this feeling of helplessness – need to thrive.

Anyone who has ever taken a few deep breaths, forced their shoulders down, or closed their eyes to regain their composure knows that the brain and body are in a constant feedback loop. We feel our thoughts and we think our feelings.

The search for these ideas led me to discuss with renowned scientists from all over the world. Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital told me about a process known as “body budgeting,” or allostasis. She argues that, like a financial budget, our brain keeps track of when we spend resources (eg, going for a run) and when resources are deposited (eg, eating). It is a predictive process by which the brain maintains energy regulation by anticipating the body’s needs and preparing to meet those needs before they arise.

Feldman argues that this process is so fundamental to brain architecture that it extends to our mental states. Our emotions stem from our brain’s calculations of our body’s physical and metabolic needs. Predicting a dangerous situation forcing us to flee leads to physical changes and discomfort that we register as anxiety.

This bodily budgeting has social effects. For example, our ability to sympathize with another person depends on our body budget. When people are more familiar to us, our brain can more effectively predict their inner state and difficulties. This process is more difficult for those less familiar to us, so our brains may be less inclined to use valuable resources to make difficult predictions.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a professor of social neuroscience at McMaster University in Canada, explained to me how those in power often struggle to empathize with others. Because the brain makes predictions based on past experiences, these patterns are self-reinforcing. Often powerful people learn to behave as if they have power. Powerless people learn to behave as if they don’t have any.

This research has legitimized what I have always known. The powerful power cables for power supply; but it can also wire them against people without power. You can lose your empathy. And potency is essential to well-being.

This empathy deficit has always been a famous attribute among leaders – the ruthlessness that allows people to make tough decisions without fearing the consequences. You can see it in political leaders of all political persuasions, from time immemorial. Today, he feels particularly austere. It left society divided, trust in powerful institutions eroded, and policy-making guided by ideology rather than human experience.

We need a new kind of policy-making that puts people at the heart of the process. Policymakers must start by listening, sharing power with people who truly understand the nature of powerlessness and the effect of the policies they write. We cannot remain in this perpetual loop of those who have the power to decide everything. They are handicapped by their own privilege.

Many find these proofs of power uncomfortable to face. I spoke in panels, presented my arguments and had them challenged in public by top academics, who later apologized privately, once they had checked my credentials in full.

I shouldn’t need to rely on science to make my voice heard and justify what I already know: that power is a limiting factor for our leaders and we need to develop different policies to counterbalance the power gap. It’s a call to action: we can do things differently. Let’s try.

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