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Prolonged feelings of power corrupt mind, say neuroscientists


Brain activity of CEOs changes as they climb the career ladder, causes them to lose the ability to empathise
The saying goes that ‘power corrupts’, and a new study suggests there may be some truth behind this – especially when it comes to brain function.

Researchers have found that Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and other leaders may suffer damage to their brain as a result of their rise to power.

The damage results in the loss of the ability to read other people’s emotions, which could explain why people who achieve great power lose their ability to feel empathy for the less powerful.


Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, United States (U.S.), made the finding using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a technique that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in specific regions of the brain.

This showed that the areas of the brain that deal with empathy were significantly less responsive in people in power.

The results are down to the brain’s neuroplasticity – an ability that allows the mind to rewire itself in response to experiences.

The study did not look at exactly why power changes the way the brain works,

The researchers, led by Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi, said: “Many people who have witnessed a colleague get promoted to an executive level have probably seen some changes in their behaviour, and not always for the better.

“Power it seems, has a profound effect on the neurocognitive system underlying behaviour.

“Our current work aims to integrate previous work from social psychology with the techniques and methods of cognitive neuroscience to gain a better understanding of exactly how power affects the brain and social functioning in a variety of environments.”

The study involved 45 volunteers who were primed for the experiment by recounting experiences where they felt powerful, neutral or powerless.

They were then shown video footage of a hand squeezing a rubber ball.

The TMS system measured brain activity in an area that deals with motor resonance – the left primary motor cortex – which normally activates when witnessing movements in other people.

Our perception of other people’s actions produces brain activity very similar to those created if we had performed the same actions ourselves.

Recent studies suggest that people understand other’s actions and intentions through this process.

But people who wield power who wish to avoid this brain damage can take positive steps, according to experts.

This includes keeping people around who have the power to call you out on bad behaviour, rewarding honesty while discouraging flattery, and maintaining social connections.

*Adapted from DailyMailUK Online

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Sukhvinder ObhiTMS
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