Why We Crave Power: A Former Marxist Professor Explains The Science Behind Our Brain's Animalistic Urge

Politics and power make sense when you understand the animal brain.

By Dr. Loretta Breuning3 min read
BAZA Production/Shutterstock

People like power. We don’t admit this with our verbal brain, but underneath it, we have the core brain of other mammals. This mammalian operating system rewards you with a good-feeling chemical when you see yourself in a position of strength. It alarms you with a bad-feeling chemical when you see yourself in a position of weakness. This is why we long for power in one form or another. Managing this impulse is the challenge of being human.

We start learning to manage our urge for power when we’re young. We scream for what we want at birth, but we slowly build skills for meeting our needs in better ways. A toddler who grabs toys from others is taught how to get along. A teenager learns to anticipate the consequences of their actions and to find safe ways to stimulate the good feeling of power. A young brain learns from the responses of the world around it.

The Animal Brain Learns from Results

If you steal your brother’s cookie and you get to keep it, then your animal brain learns that stealing cookies feels good. If you steal your brother’s cookie and he clonks you on the head, then you learn that stealing cookies feels bad. You don’t admit that you fear getting clonked. You learn to say that you want to share the cookie because that gets rewarded. But underneath your verbal brain, you still have an animal limbic system that learns from results.  

Happy chemicals are released in your brain when you succeed at meeting your needs.

A young monkey gets bitten if it grabs a bigger monkey’s banana. The pain wires it to restrain itself around bigger monkeys. But the young monkey still needs to eat, so it finds a banana near a smaller monkey. Happy chemicals are released when it succeeds at meeting its needs. We have inherited a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you feel your strength. Managing this natural impulse is the struggle of human history. 

When the good feeling of power turns on, you don’t know where it came from. Your animal brain can’t tell you because it doesn’t process language, and your verbal brain has learned to insist that you don't enjoy power. So you look for socially acceptable ways to stimulate the good feeling that you can’t really name. 

We Learn To Explain Our Urge for Dominance in Ways That Are Accepted by Those around Us

You define “socially acceptable” based on the reward structure you live in. Bad behavior is rewarded sometimes, which wires people to expect bad behavior to feel good.

You define “socially acceptable” based on the reward structure you live in.

Each of us struggles to manage our natural urge for power. Each of us manages it with neural pathways built in youth because that’s when our neuroplasticity is high. We all find it hard to explain our urge for power since our animal brain can’t talk to us in words.


When you’re a child, you learn from the way your parents manage their natural urge for dominance. As a teenager, you add new layers based on new models. Your mirror neurons motivate you to get rewards in the ways you see others get them.

Media and Education Play a Big Role in the Way Your Verbal Brain Makes Sense of Your Animal Impulses

Teachers and media are a big source of input during your years of peak neuroplasticity.  If they tell you that you’re a victim of oppression, you easily wire in that belief. If they show you people getting rewards by attacking authority, your mirror neurons help you learn to feel good in that way. If they offer safety in numbers as you grab power, it feels so good that you want more.

If your teachers and media tell you that you’re a victim of oppression, you easily wire in that belief.

This happened to me in the 1970s. Marxism was a big part of the Social Science curriculum at Ivy League schools at that time. Most of my classes focused on victims fighting oppression. I repeated the Marxist mindset in order to get rewards. It wasn’t so painful – a young brain enjoys the idea of grabbing power from authorities.

I went on to be a college professor and spread the victimhood mindset to my students. I didn’t say that with my verbal brain, of course. I had learned to present "the evidence" in a way that made alleged oppressors seem all bad and alleged victims all good. More importantly, I’d learned to fear being ridiculed, shunned, and attacked if I deviated from that model.

It takes intelligence, maturity, and courage to break away from our learned victim mentality.

As I grew in life experience, I saw the obvious flaws of the simplistic good-guy/bad-guy world view. As I grew in courage, I didn't want to live in fear of ridicule, shunning, and attack anymore. So I took early retirement, after sticking with the herd for way too long.

If you’re not retired, it’s harder to avoid the Marxist herd. Media and teachers have made it socially acceptable to ridicule, shun, and attack anyone who fails to submit to their power grab, even as they package it in nice words like “compassion” and “science.” Hardly anyone notices what they're submitting to because they've been trained since youth to understand their natural impulses in this way.

Media and teachers have made it socially acceptable to ridicule, shun, and attack anyone who fails to submit to their power grab.

Each generation seeks power and finds new ways to justify it. Each brain seeks power and learns which powerplays get rewarded in the world they live in. Professional communicators package these power grabs with lofty abstractions about the greater good. When I hear their messages, I hear the same Marxist memes that I memorized in the ‘70s. Marxism was already a century old at that point, but it sells well because it appeals to our animal urge for power. 

Closing Thoughts

You can read more on this in my book, How I Escaped from Political Correctness, And You Can Too, and in my new booklet, REVOLT: The Secret History of a Natural Impulse. To learn more about the brain chemicals that make us happy, check out the many free resources on my website,