Dozens of studies have shown that what we do and how we act can create long-term changes in behavior because real physical changes occur in the brain. A straightforward example of this are the various habits, many unconsciously acted upon, that we develop throughout our lifetimes. Studies aside for a moment, this effect has been well known for ages and so from an early age we have been encouraged to “develop good habits.” At the level of biology and chemistry, habits are merely established neural pathways that electrical impulses follow between linked nerve cells. A particular entrenched habit is the “easy” path, like well-worn ruts in a road, that signals generated by outside stimuli can more easily follow.
Habits have a real physical signature in brain “wiring” brought about by repetitive behaviors and stimuli. These behaviors may be primarily physical in nature like learning to throw an orange ball through a hoop or hitting a fast moving projectile with a wooden stick, or they may be more cerebral as in the development of solid friendships or spiritual beliefs. Once established, habits remain dominant neural roads that remain in place throughout our lifetime. “Breaking” a strong habit when necessary or unavoidable creates real physical pain, because a physical part of the brain is in a sense injured.
An interesting aspect of habits is how the brain responds when watching someone else perform a habit we have developed. For instance, when we watch a basketball player take a shot (if we also play the game) the part of our brain that “lights up” watching is the same part of the brain that lights up when we are actually performing the same task. Similarly, if we imagine the route that we take to work each day, the part of the brain that is activated is the same part of the brain that would become active if we actually were on our way.
This characteristic of the human mind, that doing and imagining the same thing activates the same neural pathways between brain cells, is also true of objects. The part of the brain that becomes active when we imagine an apple, for instance, is the same as when we actually see an apple. It’s as if the brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.
Recent studies have determined how rising to “power” changes brain chemistry. Someone who has attained a great deal of power, politicians and CEOs for example, or someone who has control over vast numbers of people, may develop altered brain chemistry from that which a “normal” person would have. The “habit” of being a person in power with control over others can have real personality changing consequences. We sometimes lament at the elected official who sounded so wonderful during a campaign but seems to de-evolve into another creature entirely once elected. At least some of that change is due to the mind-changing influence of acquired power, and specifically power over other people.
The mind-changing effects of power may include loss of empathy for others and an inability to spontaneously react to the emotions of others. They cannot put themselves into “another person’s shoes.” For instance, in a group that might be laughing at a joke or occurrence, the person suffering the effects of power will not be able to relate to the “mood” and remain stoic, or on the other hand find humor in something that others find quite sobering. Some psychologists will maintain that this acquired trait (habit) actually serves a purpose, allowing a CEO to fire vast numbers of people without compassion for individual workers, or the general in a time of war that makes decisions that may lead to thousands of deaths. But in more clinical terms, it is a “form of antisocial behavior evidenced by a lack of remorse or empathy.” Those afflicted with the “habit of power” find justification by convincing themselves they are serving a “higher” goal or principle, which may be self-serving or for a “common good.” But if their position of power evaporates, the effect on their brain may be so entrenched that they may never become “normal” again, and suffer further psychological damage retaining the “habit of power” but having nowhere to exercise it.
Email Terry Mejdrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.