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The neurochemistry of power has implications for political change

Brain power. Pixaby, CC BY-SA

Power, especially absolute and unchecked power, is intoxicating. Its effects occur at the cellular and neurochemical level. They are manifested behaviourally in a variety of ways, ranging from heightened cognitive functions to lack of inhibition, poor judgement, extreme narcissism, perverted behaviour, and gruesome cruelty.

The primary neurochemical involved in the reward of power that is known today is dopamine, the same chemical transmitter responsible for producing a sense of pleasure. Power activates the very same reward circuitry in the brain and creates an addictive “high” in much the same way as drug addiction. Like addicts, most people in positions of power will seek to maintain the high they get from power, sometimes at all costs. When withheld, power – like any highly addictive agent – produces cravings at the cellular level that generate strong behavioural opposition to giving it up.

In accountable societies, checks and balances exist to avoid the inevitable consequences of power. Yet, in cases where leaders possess absolute and unchecked power, changes in leadership and transitions to more consensus-based rule are unlikely to be smooth. Gradual withdrawal of absolute power is the only way to ensure that someone will be able to accept relinquishing it.

Dopamine and addiction

Human beings are characterised by “emotional amoral egoism”. Humans are emotionally driven and (for most of us, most of the time), our moral compass is malleable and heavily influenced by circumstances, survival value, and our perceived “emotional self-interest”. Emotions, however, are not immaterial: they are neurochemically-mediated and physical in so far as they have neurochemical correspondents.

Dopamine is responsible for producing a sense of pleasure and helps us to retain information and engage in reward-driven learning. It is released in certain parts of the brain by rewarding experiences, such as achievement, food consumption, and other pleasures of life. However it is also produced in behaviours that may be unhealthy and life-threatening, such as substance abuse or gambling. Either way, dopamine release is what makes people want to re-engage in these activities.

Dopamine activates a reward system that has been essential to our survival as a species, encouraging us to return to behaviour that is essential for life. This process is what I have previously called the “neurochemical gratification principle” (NGP), where even the expectation of a reward is believed to function in a similar way to reward itself.

Yet, just as healthy behaviour is repeatedly induced by our reward systems, so too is unhealthy behaviour. Drugs, such as cocaine, nicotine and amphetamines, also lead to an increase of dopamine in the reward system of the brain. Addiction is an extreme form of behaviour that employs existing neuronal networks that produce manic behaviour, manifested as elation, increased cognition and grandiose self-perceptions. Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon, for example, all appeared incapable of empathy and of comprehending the value of human life, condemning thousands to death in suicidal military campaigns. Yet, it is likely that power itself (rather than any specific behavioural aberration), may have been responsible for exaggerating certain behavioural traits that each individual exhibited.

Dopamine and power

The brain is neurochemically pre-programmed to seek pleasure, regardless of its social acceptability or how it is derived. We are therefore, all addicts, of one sort or another, to the extent that we are all engaged in pursuits that ensure dopamine and other neurochemicals flow. As such, we all avoid doing things that would result in dopamine withdrawal. In a similar way to drug addicts and alcoholics, people find it hard to admit that they are addicts of acceptance/esteem/power because of dopamine withdrawals that would result in doing so. Moreover, stopping addictive behaviour that is harmful to self or others is not simply a question of will power.

Much like addictive drugs, power uses these ready-made reward circuitries, producing extreme pleasure. In moderate amounts, dopamine can enhance dimensions of cognitive function, but may also make people impulsive, less risk-averse and less empathetic. High levels of dopamine are associated with a sense of personal destiny, risk-taking, preoccupation with the cosmic or religion, and emotional detachment that can lead to ruthlessness, and an obsession with achieving goals and conquests.

Absolute power can also lead people to believe that a spiritual force is guiding them even within established democracies. For example, former US president George Bush told people that God wanted him to wage war against Iraq and his ally in the Iraq War, and former British prime minister Tony Blair is also thought to have believed that God wanted him to take the country into war to combat evil.

The certainty that such leaders seem to possess is a symptom of extremely high levels of dopamine. Not only are powerful individuals likely to be egocentric, but also paranoid. The latter may be a consequence of self-deception in the face of conflicting advice from close associates.

Neuro-politics and political change

The neurochemistry of power has implications for politics and for political change. Since power activates our neuronal reward systems in the brain and, as such, is addictive, people in positions of unchecked power are likely to lack the self-awareness required to act with restraint or to seek a consensual form of decision making.

Dictators are, therefore, more likely to appear in situations where checks and balances are not present or consolidated. Brutality and a lack of regard for citizens of countries governed by leaders with absolute power will tend to be the rule, regardless of the psychological state of the ruler.

Since sudden withdrawal of power like the abrupt withdrawal from drugs produces uncontrollable cravings, those who possess power, especially absolute power, are highly unlikely to give it up willingly, smoothly and without human and material loss. It is important to remember that power, like all human emotions, is neurochemically mediated and that unchecked power can create irrational, addicted and destructive impulses.

This article originally appeared in Politics in Spires, a collaborative blog that shares thoughts on politics and international relations from scholars at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

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