The 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 it’s difficult to get out of bed if you have mental health conditions, impossible to laugh or charm if you are worried about what you will eat, and how not being seen can grind away at your sense of self.
I am often in rooms with people who do not understand this, people more educated than me, more privileged than me – people who are so accustomed to having power that they don’t even know it’s there. I am a black woman in my fifties, I am neurodiverse, and I have multiple mental health diagnoses. Part of my job as a researcher and cultural thinker involves working with leaders in the arts, business and politics, supporting them to see the one thing they can’t: the effects of the power that they wield.
But just pointing out this disparity can leave people feeling defensive. It can get you labelled an “angry black woman”. In the past, when I started to tell people about what it felt like to have no power, and how hard it was to understand, they didn’t listen. So I turned to science, to understand the effects of power in your body, in order to bring evidence to what I already knew, and make people 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 powerlessness leads to perpetual stress. That stress trains our bodies to be on the alert for it, compromising our productivity and happiness in situations where others – those who have never experienced that sense of powerlessness – are left to thrive.
Anyone who’s ever taken a few deep breaths, forced themselves to lower their shoulders or closed their eyes to regain their composure is aware that the brain and the body are in a constant feedback loop. We feel our thoughts and we think our feelings.
Researching these ideas brought me into conversations with leading scientists around the world. Prof Lisa Feldman Barrett, at 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 (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 satisfy 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 the physical, metabolic needs of our bodies. Predicting a dangerous situation requiring us to flee results in physical changes and discomfort we register as anxiety.
This body budgeting has social effects. For instance, our ability to empathise with another person is dependent on our body budgeting. When people are more familiar to us, our brain can more efficiently predict what their inner state and struggles may be and feel like. This process is harder for those less familiar to us, so our brains may be less inclined to use up precious resources in making 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 empathise 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 have none.
This research legitimised what I always knew. Power wires the powerful for power; but it can also wire them against people without power. You can lose your empathy. And power is critical for wellbeing.
This empathy deficit has historically been a celebrated attribute among leaders – ruthlessness that allows people to make hard decisions without fear of the consequences. You can see it in political leaders of every political persuasion, from time immemorial. Today it feels particularly stark. It has left society divided, trust in powerful institutions eroded and policymaking driven by ideology rather than human experience.
We need a new kind of policymaking that puts people at the heart of the process. Policymakers need to start by listening, by sharing power with the people who really understand the nature of powerlessness and the effect of the policies they are writing. We can’t stay in this perpetual loop of those with power deciding everything. They are handicapped by their own privilege.
Many find this evidence about power uncomfortable to confront. I’ve spoken on panels, presented my arguments and had them disputed in public by senior academics, who later apologised privately, once they’d checked my references in full.
I shouldn’t need to lean on science to be heard and justify what I already know: that power is a limiting factor for our leaders and we need to make policy differently to counterbalance the power gap. This is a call to action: we can do things differently. Let’s try.