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I Always Knew Powerful People Had Blind Spots, Now Neuroscience Has Proven It | Susann Alleyne

youWhat 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 difficult it is to get out of bed if you have mental health problems, how impossible to laugh or delight if you are worried about what you are going to eat, and how difficult it can be. that they don’t see it. grind your sense of self.

I’m often in rooms with people who don’t understand this, 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 woman in my fifties, neurodiverse, and have multiple mental health diagnoses. Part of my work as a cultural thinker and researcher involves working with leaders in the arts, business, and politics, helping them see the one thing they can’t: the effects of the power they wield.

But just pointing out this disparity can make people feel defensive. It can get you labeled an “angry black woman.” In the past, when I started telling people what it felt like to be powerless and how hard it was to understand, they wouldn’t listen. So I turned to science, to understand the effects of power on your body, to bring evidence of what I already knew and to get people to listen.

I call this research the neurology of power. It involves looking at the sociological explanations of power, as well as the neuroscientific underpinnings. Being in a state of helplessness leads to perpetual stress. That stress trains our bodies to be alert, compromising our productivity and happiness in situations where others—those who have never experienced that feeling of helplessness—are forced to thrive.

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

Investigating these ideas led me to engage in conversations with leading scientists from around 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 brains keep track of when we spend resources (for example, going for a run) and when resources are deposited (for example, eating). It is a predictive process, whereby the brain maintains energy regulation by anticipating the needs of the body and preparing to meet those needs before they arise.

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

This bodily budgeting has social effects. For example, our ability to empathize with another person depends on the budget of our body. When people are more familiar to us, our brains can more efficiently predict what their internal state and struggles may be like and feel like. This process is more difficult for those that are less familiar to us, so our brains may be less inclined to use precious resources to make difficult predictions.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a professor of social neuroscience at McMaster University in Canada, told me more about how people with 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. People without power learn to behave as if they don’t have it.

This investigation legitimized what I always knew. Power cords of the mighty for power; but you can also wire them against powerless people. You can lose your empathy. And power is critical to well-being.

This empathy deficit has historically been a celebrated attribute among leaders: cruelty that allows people to make difficult decisions without fear of the consequences. It can be seen in political leaders of all political persuasions, from time immemorial. Today it feels particularly strong. It has left society divided, trust in powerful institutions eroded, and policymaking driven by ideology rather than human experience.

We need a new type of policy making that puts people at the center of the process. Policymakers need to start by listening, sharing power with the people who really understand the nature of powerlessness and the effect of the policies they are writing. We cannot stay in this perpetual loop of those with power deciding everything. They are disadvantaged by their own privilege.

Many find this evidence of power uncomfortable to confront. I spoke on panels, presented my arguments, and discussed them in public by senior academics, who then apologized in private, once my references were fully checked.

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

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