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  • Writer's pictureSusan Howell

Power and the Brain

by Susan Harris Howell

As an egalitarian I often write and speak on the importance of equality within male-female relationships. I do so because I strongly believe that power inequity prevents each partner from being all God calls him or her to be. Inequality diminishes everyone: those with power and those without.

I hadn’t realized until recently, however, that an imbalance of power has actually been linked to brain functioning. According to Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, people with power share similarities with those who have damaged frontal lobes, a part of the brain which facilitates empathy and socially-appropriate behavior. Such a condition, Dr. Keltner reports, “can cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior” (Marano, 2014, p 61).

I’m now pondering how this might play out in a marriage in which both partners see the husband as the family leader, the one with a right to the final say, the one with more power than the other. Might we see a man who grows less empathetic and more insensitive as he exercises what he believes is his right to be in charge?

Granted, many benevolent husbands lead their families without being tyrants and do so with a gracious spirit. I know of several. Yet, the science behind power seems to indicate a risk here for both the one who has power and the one who does not.

Namely, from a Christian perspective, it would seem difficult for each individual to develop the fruit of the Spirit. Consistently lacking power in a relationship would seem to make it difficult to experience love, joy, and peace. And consistently having power would seem to work against patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.

Wouldn’t it be more productive to encourage a balance of power in which each partner leads in the areas in which he or she is most knowledgeable and most capable of good leadership? With no one consistently in a position of power (or consistently lacking the same) we might avoid the impulsive insensitivity of which Dr. Keltner speaks and grow more fully into the fruit of the spirit to which we are all called.


Keltner, D.; Langner, C. A.; Allison, M. L. (2006). Power and Moral Leadership. In D. L. Rhode (Ed.),Moral leadership: The theory and practice of power, judgment and policy. Warren Bennis Signature Series. (pp. 177-194). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Marano, H. E. (2014, January/February). Love and Power. Psychology Today, 47(1), 54-61, 78).

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