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Power shapes our lives and our decision making 24 hours a day. What is it doing to you? Suzanne Alleyne investigates.

illustration of three people
Can we talk about Power? 2021

Alva Skog

How much do you think about power? Neurology of Power is a research project I started in 2016 which asks the question: what is power and where might it reside in our brains and bodies? Rooted in the cultural sector, it is an iterative practical research project, partnering with neuroscientists, science, artists, cultural organisations and corporate business. 

Neurology of Power has grown with my company Alleyne&, sitting within our incubator and informing our creative practice. As a 56-year-old Black British menopausal woman with mental health and learning differences, living at these intersections gives me a breadth and depth of perspective. Working in this sector, thinking about the relationship between power and culture, is what made me root this research in arts and culture. 

Understanding power from neurological and lived experience perspectives offers us new thinking about how to engage with people and life professionally and personally whether through leadership, as part of a team or through artistic practice.

Power permeates human relationships

I’m especially interested in what neuroscience can tell us about power. Often, in the West we feel more comfortable with scientific, evidence-based information. So that’s where I started. For the past three years I’ve been speaking to Professor Sukhvinder Obhi, who is one of the world's leading social neuroscientists on the topic of power. 

In order to succeed in life, understanding that power shapes human behaviour is essential. In a recent interview, Professor Obhi said: “You can't understand human social behaviour without understanding power; power permeates every human relationship. Power and status underlie pretty much every single human interaction you can think of. And if we don't think about it, we actually don't get to understand human social behaviour very richly at all.” 

Research shows that increased power might lead to decreased empathy. It’s really important to say ‘might’ as it’s not always the case. Professor Obhi says: “Social psychologists would say that as power increases, so does social distance. You become less attuned to other people and enter a potentially more egocentric frame of mind.”

What is the relationship between culture and power?

Many accept that culture defines us and that who gets to lead and tell our stories matters. Part of this research asks what the relationship is between culture and power? If culture is bound with identity, then the idea of changing our relationship with power may feel for some like giving up one’s own identity; even if doing so might create stronger leaders, more resilient organisations and a fuller artistic practice.

But there is another valuable business reason to consider how power shapes our organisations and artistic endeavours. Think about your bottom line - people are your biggest cost. What if your relationship with power is getting in the way of their productivity and brilliance? We all live on the spectrum of power, from those of us that have it and sometimes assume power is our right, to those of us that feel we don’t have any at all. 

Can we talk about Power? is a partnership between Alleyne&, the public programming team at the Barbican and Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity. It came out of a chance conversation in 2018 with Louise Jeffreys, then Artistic Director at the Barbican. Having just visited Banff Centre, I was struck that power was at the core of their work centering indigenous knowledge and wisdom. We had no idea then of the juggernaut - the pandemic and the horrific murder of George Floyd – hurtling towards us. Two and a half years in the making it is more relevant than ever.

As a creative sector, we know better than anyone the power of the arts. Can we talk about Power? uses art and culture to help us connect with ourselves, our teams and our stakeholders. It also allows us a moment to join up our lives and to think about our relationship to power as, for example, someone with parental responsibilities, a friend or colleague, or as someone who may have been furloughed or lost their livelihood. Or simply as human beings trying to manage relationships with each other and the planet.

A series of provocations

In a series of five conversations, I will be speaking to writer and performer Roger Robinson, the T.S Eliot winner for ‘A Portable Paradise’, about power, life and creativity. Also in the programme is neuroscientist Professor Lisa Feldman Barret, author of ‘Seven And a Half Lessons About The Brain’. With her ability to make the complex simple, we’ll be talking about how our brains work and how that links to power. 

We’ll also hear from Margaret Atwood - author of more than 60 books including ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ - on how interconnected the world and power really is. And Banff Centre will share how indigenous knowledge and wisdom can teach us something different about power. Our final session will be about power and wellbeing - from testosterone and menopause to survival and neuroplasticity - for individuals, organisations and society. 

Can we talk about Power? is an opportunity for our sector to gather as individuals, in teams or even with our loved ones, to be part of a down to earth, creative and informative discussion about power. As a society we spend so much time talking about our work, careers, love and relationships. My provocation to you is that power is the missing piece to these conversations. This is for everyone, but it is especially for those of us that play such a powerful part in shaping, creating and curating our countries’ cultural stories.

Suzanne Alleyne is a cultural thinker and researcher, and founder of Alleyne&.

 www.alleyneand.com | www.neurologyofpower.com 

Can we talk about Power? - a series of conversations exploring the power of power is online from Mon 27 – Thu 30 Sep 2021.

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