Power Can Impair The Brain

Today we know a lot more about the brain than 15 years ago, thanks to research. We can learn how to change our brain to live more healthy and well.  We know the opposite is unfortunately also true.  Experiences such as power can change our brain, known as the Hubris syndrome, in ways that the effects are similar to traumatic brain injury.  Dacher Keltner from UC  Berkeley studied behaviors of people in power over the past 15 years in several fields, including business, higher education, politics, professional sports, entertainment, and the conclusion is that power can corrupt the brain. Behavior may resemble a manic state with actions that are expansive, energized, omnipotent, craving rewards, feeling immune to risks and resulting in an addictive pattern, thus continuing the cycle to crave more power. Studies confirm behavior may include acting in rash, rude, unethical ways toward others.

Sukhvinder Obni, neuroscientist from Canada and colleagues took a physiological approach and studied the neural impact of power on the brain with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Despite the controversial nature of this study, because TMS is not an exact science as pointed out by one of the neurologists on our team, we will interpret their conclusion that power impairs specific neural processes that imply functional changes of the brain with caution that needs further empirical evidence. 

Owen and Davidson  were the first to coin, analyze, and describe the occurrence of the Hubris syndrome in a study of world leaders in 2009.  Hubris, from ancient Greek origin, refers to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the person responsible for the wrongdoing. The grandiose thinking of hubris in  leadership may lead to overstated confidence, oversight of vital information at the cost of dangerous or expensive mistakes. Although the Hubris syndrome is not a DSM-5 diagnosis, it includes a combination of some of the symptoms from three personality disorders, namely Anti-Social, Histrionic, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. Hubris syndrome also includes a few unique symptoms such as restlessness, recklessness, and impulsiveness; an unshakable belief that a court will find them blameless; and a tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’ to override practicality, cost, or outcomes.

These scientists also offered practical examples and evidence that the majority of people in power do not exhibit Hubris syndrome, because they will need to meet at least three of the criteria.  Powerful leaders need someone to keep them grounded  or being a ‘toe holder’ such as Louis Howe described himself in his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Howe never stopped calling on his first name. Keltner recommends that leaders keep on practicing mindful practices such as empathy, gratitude, and generosity that keep them connected to others who might have influenced their appointment in the first place.  Owen, who is a British neurologist turned parliamentarian and served as the foreign secretary before becoming a baron, admits that he has his own challenges to keep himself grounded.  He recommends the following strategies:

  • Thinking back on humbling hubris-dispelling episodes from the past;
  • Watching documentaries about everyday people;
  • Staying close to the heartthrob of constituents/team/people in your organization.

What are you doing to keep yourself grounded and mindful as a leader?

What Is Mindfulness?

As a Global Community Hub we pondered on this important question the past few days:

What is mindfulness?   Scientists in the field of mindfulness stated that the term mindfulness has a plethora of meanings.  Mindfulness is an umbrella term used to characterize a large number of practices, processes, and characteristics, largely defined in relation to the capacities of attention, awareness, memory/retention, and acceptance/discernment.  We could limit ourselves by staying in our heads with academic terms, but really, should mindfulness perhaps rather be heartfulnessJon Kabat-Zinn and others made a case that in the Chinese language mindfulness is written with a character for presence over a character for heart.  Mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of meditation for practitioners in both Eastern and Western  cultures.

We asked our own hub members for input. Shay, who has a deep passion for transformation and to bring future possibility into form, whether with voice or re-creating a home, favors this definition from the Hakomi methodIt is a distinct state of consciousness, characterized by relaxed volition, a surrender to and acceptance of the happenings of the moment, a gentle, sustained focus of attention inward, a heightened sensitivity and the ability to observe and name the contents of consciousness. It is self reflective.  Yvette, who is making time for an hour of journaling, art, and meditation as part of her daily routine that prepares her for the day ahead, said:  Mindfulness to me is, appreciation of this singular moment in time, not remembering the past or projecting into the future, but staying in the now.   Surin mentioned: Mindfulness is being aware of what one is doing in the movements of the body, in the movement in the mind, and putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.

Most of our members are also actively involved in the MIT ULab course of Otto Scharmer and team. This highly experiential course is based on Theory U, a framework, method, and way of connecting to the more authentic aspects of our self. It introduces the variables of awareness, attention, consciousness, and presencing into self, business, and society.  By keeping an open mind, open heart, open will,  mindful presence is key of the U process as we  lead from the emerging future.

I spent one day this past week at a monastery where l love to go on retreats. I learned a lot of wisdom from the monks during my various visits there over the years, because for them mindfulness is an integrated part of their lifestyle, every day, in everything what they are doing. Over the years I learned that  mindfulness is an integral part of who we are,  every breath we take, as Jon Kabat-Zinn stated it recently: ‘a life-long love affair’ that gives purpose and meaning to every moment of where we are,  in the here and now.   In our Global Community Hub we welcome new members who would like to be introduced to some of the basics of mindfulness in small, incremental steps.  For members who are already practicing mindfulness, we want to give an opportunity to grow in their practices and encourage them in their individual journeys when we meet in our coaching circles, or other ways we connect as a virtual community.  We also welcome practitioners who have integrated mindfulness as part of their daily life routine, because we have plenty of opportunity where we can all learn from each other.   I agree with Richard Davidson when he said that when we want to take care of our body, we make sure to get enough sleep, eat  healthy, and make time for daily exercise.  We get our body in shape to be in better service of others. The time is ready for us to also integrate contemplative aerobics into our daily routine with our mindfulness practices.  He predicts that in 30 years it will be as common to do our mental exercise as it will be to do our physical exercise as part of our daily routine. I don’t want to wait another 30 years, do you?

Where Is Your Happy Place?

Some of the wisest life lessons that I have learned came from little kids and friends. This week was no exception. It is not an overstatement to say the past two months had been a whirlwind of experiences on a personal level, but very much so on national or international levels for each one of us. Some of the wisdom I learned this week came from Jan in Australia when she shared about a tragedy that happened the previous week in Melbourne when a raging man drove down the main street, targeting pedestrians whose lives were cut short; among them a 3-month old baby. The grief of the families left behind to deal with this senseless act. Jan also shared her intention for 2017: to focus on her spiritual practice, wanting her life less cluttered in order to deal with the suffering around us.

The day after Jan’s email I met with an 11-year old boy who I have already introduced to mindfulness and meditation practice before. What transpired since the previous contact was that he was abused by an older sibling (fortunately he spoke up immediately and his adoptive mom already stepped in with protective measures). The amazing part of his story was that what he did in the mean time until we saw again. He created for himself a ‘happy place’ in the woods on the property of his adoptive grandparents with whom he has a very good relationship. It is sheltered and there he goes to sit and write his thoughts in his journal and meditate. Nature makes him happy, the sheltered area in the woods is his ‘safe space’ and there he can connect with himself and the universe before he is ready to face the world again.

Based on what I learned from Jan and this remarkable young boy this week, the past two days was a time for to visit my ‘happy place’ as often as possible.  Be still, in meditation. Where is your ‘happy place’ and how can we encourage you to spend enough time there? What if 2017 would be the year you choose to spend with people who have your spiritual growth at heart?  Would it help to make declutter a way of living where we take moments to share from the heart, but at the same time connect in a Mindful, Abundant, Resilient, life-giving Synergy manner with like-minded and like-hearted people from around the world?