Power is such an impactful force – Power is an incredibly nuanced, difficult concept that impacts many areas of life. In a scientific, more evidence-based sense, power is the ability to influence the states of other people, may that be visually, emotionally or physically.
Because power is such an impactful force, I was drawn to thinking about how power lives within us and around us. Where and how does power exist in the brain and body? How does power manifest in our society? Are there neurological differences between those who have power and those who do not, as well as social ones?
Your research, the Neurology of Power, asks how power manifests itself in the brain. Are there any frameworks we can use to approach this very complex topic?
Professor Lisa Feldman-Barrett tells us that if we want to think about power, we first need to consider how our brains work, how they construct our reality and create our own individual environments.
Firstly, emotions are a social reality that originates in the brain of the perceiver. Our brains are wired at an early age with knowledge about emotion; from our caregivers, and the culture in which we are raised. Secondly, our brains use this knowledge to construct emotional meaning; emotions don’t just happen to us, they are made by us. Our nervous systems not only work in tandem but also affect each other. We move our facial muscles all the time – outwardly we may scrunch our eyebrows, wrinkle our nose or curl our lips whilst on the inside, we experience fluctuations in heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rate, temperature and cortisol levels. As an example, if my mum tells me she saw a rat in the garage I might scream, and experience a racing heart and sweaty palms, all of which suggest that this news has made me anxious and stressed even though I didn’t see the rat myself – and supports the idea that I have a phobia of rodents. All of these movements are physically real, but they do not have intrinsic emotional meaning until we grant it.
Professor Sukhvinder Obhi, a social neurologist, further argues that “you can’t understand human social behaviour without understanding power.” Through his work, which seeks a scientific understanding of how the brain enables social behaviour, we can begin to develop an understanding of the ways power and status impact our lives – with a neurological explanation. From there, we can “develop strategies that can help harness the positive effects of power and mitigate negative consequences.”
So, why are we talking about power?
Power is present in so much of what we do. It is a part of everything from what we say to how we look, think, and feel; it affects stories we choose to tell about our lives. In acknowledging its presence we can reflect on how it shapes the environments we find ourselves in.
I call myself a Cultural Thinker, a term I coined to cover my work as a strategist, researcher and conversationalist. I work with arts organisations, brands and corporate businesses to interrogate their approaches to self-care, neurodiversity, progressive leadership and innovation. Power is a key component in understanding the culture and behaviours of organisations and the individuals that inhibit it. Through my conversations with sector experts like Professor Barrett and Professor Obhi, it’s become clear that our behaviour is governed by the way the brain operates. However, whilst neuroscience is an important foundation for understanding power, it doesn’t tell the entire story.
My current work, and the CWTAP symposium, takes a more multidisciplinary approach in order to illustrate this point. What began as a need to prepare organisational culture and leadership practices to be better able to respond to a requirement to create and lead more equitable workspaces, evolved both organisational and public facing work. Over four days we heard from artists, poets, writers, and scientists who talked about power in different ways and so created an appeal beyond the cultural and creative industries.
Would you say that your definition of power changed or stayed the same after chatting to the speakers at the event?
I don’t have a scientific background. Like many of the audience, I found it really useful to hear from experts in the scientific community, and to begin to understand the foundations of what power can be at a neurological level.
We hosted an incredible variety of brilliant people over those four days. If anything, hearing from speakers as diverse as writer Margaret Atwood and poet Roger Robinson has taught me that we all still have so much to learn. This topic evoked such strong, thoughtful, personalised responses from each of these disciplines. CWTAP reinforced how much more research there is to do and how useful creativity and art can be to help us self-reflect and consider the big questions around power and society.
The concept of power can’t be understood only from the perspective of neuroscience, or emotion, or culture. Because it impacts everything, it has to be understood through the context of everything. My goal is to continue to interrogate the concept of power through as many lenses as I am able, as I think continuing to develop the ways in which power connects seemingly disparate parts of life can only be a benefit to society.
Speaking of society, it also emerged during the event that understandings of power can differ between communities. You very interestingly hosted a talk that examined power from the indigenous perspective – can you tell us more about that?
The Western world has and acts on a very singular view of power, which is power over. In order to gain, hold, and demonstrate power, you must have this particular dynamic in a relationship or situation. The incredible people at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity, in Canada, first introduced me to the idea that not all communities hold the same definition of these social concepts, and power is one of them. There is existing research on the collective mindset of indigenous communities – particularly with respect to leadership – and the lived experience of all things being connected in service of the group. Because experience is not individualised, power is in fact defined by being in service to others, and to the community.
When we are considering the dramatic difference between these two understandings of power, it’s particularly interesting to note that research shows Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs draws on his own experience of visiting an indigenous community in Canada. The concept that you are already born with everything you need to become self-actualised is inherently an indigenous concept, and notably, power is not included anywhere within this model.
Thinking about power as related to human needs brings us to something that really resonated with me; the symposium covered some really deep and meaningful aspects of social psychology, neuroscience and mental health.
Power in the context of wellbeing is, I think, some of the richest territory we’ve yet uncovered. It gives me the opportunity to discuss power’s emotional impact, which is something that’s almost universally relatable. In my conversation with award-winning poet Roger Robinson, for example, we discussed scarcity, anxiety, and fear. These are all concepts that merit study on their own, but it’s fascinating to see the way they can all intersect with and lead back to power.
I’m also thinking of my conversation with Professor Obhi – his and many other studies of power suggest that the more powerful you are, the less empathy you might have. The amount of power you have impacts the amount of resources you hold, and resources are a rewarding thing: doors are opened for you, opportunities are available. Over a lifetime, reward-seeking behaviour is reinforced, so those same people will prioritise the things that continue to deliver on resources and reward. So truly, the amount of power you have changes the way you experience and see the world.
This reminds me of Squid Game, the recent Korean Netflix show, where people are stripped of their identity and forced to participate in ‘games’ with fatal results, and the promise that if they win, they will receive an extremely large cash prize. What struck me was the extent people will go to in times of distress and desperation. Have you watched the show, and has it brought up anything for you?
I haven’t watched it; I hear it’s amazing and all my friends and colleagues are talking about it. Even for people like me who haven’t seen the show, I think this is a really interesting moment to have this conversation. Power is dependent on so many factors, as we’ve seen, and this includes things like your economic situation – even in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In the context of our current world, the pandemic really brought to light a lot of inequalities at play, both globally and locally. People who have higher socioeconomic status (more resources, and more power) are weathering this period so much differently than those who are in need. Everything from access to healthcare to ability to work to living situation seems to follow this trend.
If we follow Professor Obhi’s line of thinking, these really overt power dynamics impact the way we think and feel, and the way we treat each other. If you look back over the events of the past two years around the world, I don’t think it can get much more topical than that.
Finally, then, I think we should close by asking the big question: is it possible to change the way power impacts our lives?
I’m really glad you brought this up, because it leads on to conversations with Dr Jerome Lubbe, a functional neurologist who focuses on how to improve holistic well-being. He offered me an example of a human happening upon a bear in the woods: at that point our brains are flooded with chemicals, we feel what we understand as fear, and we’re forced to choose between fight or flight. But our bodies and brains don’t like change – so we may experience this same level of fear in response to something that is much less threatening.
This brings up the idea of neuroplasticity: in short, the capacity that your brain has for learning. Our brains can be trained and taught in really incredible ways, and this is particularly important if we’re thinking about predictive, patterned responses to power.
When we consider this in the context of Professor Obhi’s research, we really do get a deeper understanding of human behaviour. If you’re in a reward-rich environment, your brain becomes wired to maintain that behaviour, which also makes you less empathetic. But if you’re in an environment with more threat, you’re constantly vigilant, and different behaviours and neural pathways are reinforced. In a larger societal context, it bears thinking about that understanding power is really understanding people.