Science: Power Causes Brain Damage

Studies raise questions about what authority does to the mind.


A spate of recent articles corroborate what I already suspected, that holding elected office is the neurological equivalent of getting kicked in the head by a donkey.

"Subjects under the influence of power," Dacher Keltner, a professor at University of California, Berkeley found, "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."

In other words, power turns people into sociopaths.

This isn't a huge surprise to the vast majority of us who rant about power on election day and every day afterward. Republicans and Democrats want power and scramble for it, like a football. Classical liberals see power more like Frodo's ring—a corrupting influence better chucked into a volcano. In light of recent studies we ought to consider it a bit more like a concussion.

Keltner, brought into the public spotlight through a recent piece in The Atlantic, likens the accruing of power to actual brain trauma: "My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain's orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior."

This makes some sense. People in command make quick decisions with limited data. Couple that with the lickspittles telling them their decisions are right all the time plus all that testosterone pumping from ordering folks around, and you become susceptible to being both impulsive and insentitive.

Democrat Eliot Spitzer is a great example of this clinical hubris. Spitzer rose to governor of New York running an anti-corruption campaign, only to plummet for dabbling in call girls. His misstep raises all sorts of questions. Why not just have an affair, something immoral but not illegal, and these days not politically fatal? Why take such clumsy, trackable steps? How do you go about finding call girls, exactly? Do you talk about the money or just leave it on the table? These are the questions I would like to ask Spitzer, or anyone familiar with escort services and who has a general idea of call girl pricing.

My point is: power led Spitzer to make stupid decisions and assume he was bullet-proof.

In addition to making bad decisions, the powerful also suffer from a decline in empathy. Neurologist Sukhvinder Obhi, an expert in the use of the transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine (you know, one of those), identified in powerful people impaired neuron mirroring which made them less understanding.

But don't politicians make a living bleating on about how sympathetic they are to your problems, which is why they intend to fight for you, your family and friends, school district and hometown, hopes, dreams, and pet gopher? Benevolent intentions and a lack of empathy results in a disdainful paternalism, like banning sodas and taxing cigarettes. Because the imbeciles you're fighting for are too stupid to run their own moronic lives.

Power-induced brain damage raises troubling questions about all those suits and technocrats who slink into Washington. What if you need a fully-functional orbitofrontal lobe to make decisions that affect millions? It certainly sounds like an important brain glob. Maybe the heady tonic of power makes leaders less wary of unforeseen consequences, or overly confident of their capacity to solve everything?

The antidote to all this spiralling brain damage might be to put America on a power diet. (And to eat more fish. Excellent source of Omege 3 fatty acid.) It's worked for me—I have spent years avoiding power at every turn, and my orbitofrontal lobe is swollen with health and empathy. Maybe if our leaders in Washington exercised lighter purviews over our lives it would place less strain on their gray matter. It would certainly put less strain on ours.