A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Power impairs the neural process of mirroring which leads to hubris & lack of empathy.

[August 31, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]

Power Causes Brain Damage explains how leaders lose mental capacities — most notably the capacity for reading other people. The article is by Jerry Useem from [the July / August, 2017 issue of] The Atlantic. Here are some excerpts from the article.

If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. But can it cause brain damage?

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, 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.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy….

What is mirroring?

Mirroring is a subtler kind of mimicry that goes on entirely within our heads, and without our awareness. When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience….  [Emphasis original.]

Lord David Owen — a British neurologist turned parliamentarian who served as the foreign secretary before becoming a baron — recounts both Howe’s story and Clementine Churchill’s in his 2008 book, “In Sickness and in Power”, an inquiry into the various maladies that had affected the performance of British prime ministers and American presidents since 1900. While some suffered from strokes (Woodrow Wilson), substance abuse (Anthony Eden), or possibly bipolar disorder (Lyndon B. Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt), at least four others acquired a disorder that the medical literature doesn’t recognize but, Owen argues, should.

“Hubris syndrome,” as he and a co-author, Jonathan Davidson, defined it in a 2009 article published in “Brain”, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence….  [Emphasis original.]

Read the full article at The Atlantic.

[August 31, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to August 31, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to August 31, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to August 31, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (August 31, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Further reading

A Real Test of Character: How do we Treat the Powerless?

Abuse and Power: The First Shall Be….First?

Power and Abuse: How to Identify the Abuse of Power

All Power and Control Regimes Share the Same Basic Characteristics

Power, Control, and Authority: Their Use and Abuse

Misuse of Power and Injustice to the Innocent: One follows the Other

The One Behind all Quests for Power


  1. Trueworthy

    This is fascinating!

  2. anonymous

    I’ve seen this idea pitched elsewhere. I don’t believe this theory. Correlation is not causation. I read something like ‘those most apt to obtain positions of power and control are those least fit to govern / use such power and control’. Those with empathy deficits are more likely to be those going after power positions. Abusers do love their power.

    I don’t care for this newly pitched theory because it lends to the pitying of power-mongering abusers.

    There are also many books being published about the brain scans of psychopaths and how they have diminished brain activity in such and such areas of the brain and therefore these serial killers who are in prison are supposedly victims of their brains. Hogwash.

    Power shows character. How one consistently uses or abuses power shows their character.

    • Hope

      And where is it written (in Scripture) that brain damage is any excuse for evil behavior?

      Thank you for your thoughts, I may not have considered it otherwise.

      • anon57

        Indeed, Hope. And if it was truly brain damage being some sort of excuse for evil behavior, then the evil behaviors would not be limited to just that of a wife and kids, hidden behind closed doors, as that shows it’s a choice and not an impairment-related issue. If brain damage was the cause, there’d be others who’d be abused, too, out in public, not craftily kept hidden at home.

  3. standingfirm

    So this is what happened to several male family members. I just thought they were narcissists. You know the old saying “power corrupts”.

  4. Finding Answers

    My biggest fears?

    How all this information will be misinterpreted and / or misapplied, the increased potential for blame-shifting, and the likelihood it will add to the toolbox of manipulative tactics.

    I have watched this happen in other walks of life….years later, sometimes never, the “facts” are rechecked and someone says “Oops!”.


  5. Lea

    Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, 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.

    Hmmm. I am sympathetic to Anonymous’ points about correlation / causation.

    However, it would make sense if empathy and mirroring and ability to read people (and so on) are in part about risk protection that when you gain power you need to protect yourself less and so you stop using these parts of your brain? (I may need to read the original study to see their methodology.) Hm.

    • anonymous

      Lea’s last paragraph is interesting. Just like with other muscles of the body, if you stop using them, they atrophy, and the brain is a muscle. But that’s where character, morals, value systems, and ultimately the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit comes into the picture.

      There have been very powerful people in all sorts of ways, be it wealth, or whatever, who have not been ‘corrupted by power’. I think this whole line of ‘power research’ is more about selling magazines, books, getting research grants, etc. than anything.

      If power was a drug, then how is it the (admittedly few, rare) ultra wealthy elites do not exhibit such?

      I really dislike the whole “absolute power corrupts absolutely” line of thinking. It speaks of abuser apologist mentality…. Poor, poor abusers and their power-drugged-brains….it can’t be helped that the poor, pitiful abusers are such tyrants, their power corrupted them. (sarcasm)

      If power was a drug, then how and why did someone like Paul, for example, keep himself from being ‘brain damaged’ by it? Paul was powerful.

      The emperor has no clothes. I don’t buy it. Such a theory doesn’t hold water.

      With great power, comes great responsibility. It is a character issue.

  6. Melissa

    Interesting. I wouldn’t call it a syndrome though. I would say power brings out people’s true colors because they no longer have to keep up their charade.

  7. I understand the concerns some of our readers have voiced here.

    Neurobiology is a hard science (as opposed to a soft science). It is much easier to research and give hard data about neurobiology than about things like ‘hardness of heart’ and the searing of conscience.

    I still think some of the studies in neurobiology can help us understand abusers. But we must never allow the findings of neurobiology to excuse the evildoers or let them off the hook for their evil choices.

    The Bible does talk about the blinding effect of sin, but it also talks about how people choose to harden their hearts and choose not to see or hear.

    And all the biblical laws and precepts about how leaders should behave emphasise how important it is for leaders, judges, etc. not to behave in immoral or callous ways, particularly toward the most vulnerable members of society: widows, women bereft of husbands, fatherless children, slaves, foreigners who are sojourning in the land, refugees, etc..

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