Parallels between Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the structure of the brain, and the order of our nervous system development explains how and why so many problems can be solved by boosting the basic understructure – the unconscious part – of the nervous system.
Many are familiar with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In the 1940s, he suggested that we establish basic survival needs first, then work on higher needs in our lives. This progresses from basic moment-to-moment survival to longer-term safety, and eventually on to a full flourishing of maturity and humanity, becoming the person we were meant to be.
Likewise, our brain rests on very fundamental foundations, bringing information to and from our bodies, with the parts that govern breathing and heartbeat at the bottom, then balance, and at the very tip-top, the prefrontal cortex that governs executive functions.
Finally, our nervous system has an order all its own. We first learn we have a body, and where that body is, and how it operates – think of an infant finding its toes. We learn to survive by first learning the difference between safety and danger, instinctively developing ways to increase our chances of living. We learn to move, and once we’re born, to propel ourselves around, first by rolling, then crawling and walking. We coo and cry to get love and food, and eventually interacting with people and learning life.
So our first priority is Maslow’s task of immediate survival are totally unconscious tasks – breathing, water, food, safety and the like. This is accomplished by the brainstem and dorsal vagal nerve, which relay information and needs of the body to the brain, further strengthening those connections. If you’re familiar with primitive reflexes, the fear paralysis reflex is learned now, along with the in-utero reflexes like ATNR, Spinal Galant, as well as proprio-, intero-, and neuroception. This involves establishing oxygenation status, a thirst and hunger mechanism, and being able to tell when the body is in danger, and reading the environment, to ascertain potential dangers. Can we take care of our body’s nutritional needs? What can we do to increase our chances of safety? Without these basic skills of knowing where our body is and isn’t, knowing when we’re hungry and thirsty and when we aren’t, being able to tell if we’re in pain, how much, and respond appropriately, being able to tell if we’re in danger, we will have difficulty with:
Tolerating sensory input: disliking textures and picky eating, especially preferring bland foods, becoming upset when touched or disliking anything touching you, disliking haircuts or even hair being brushed, hypersensitivity to noise (aka, misophonia), and to lights (preferring dim lights – do you know anybody who wants REALLY DARK sunglasses, for instance?), having a poor sense of balance, being triggered by smells,
If this level is not fully developed, this person can be hyper-shy, have mild to extreme difficulty with anxiety and anger and self-regulation. They may insist on controlling not only themselves, but you and the rest of the household as well. They will “turtle” under pressure: shut down and hide away from stimuli. We may see no risk, anywhere, or risk everywhere.
When these lessons aren’t fully learned, the body will struggle to accomplish safety and security and body-knowledge in a less efficient way. This takes resources from focus and attention, learning higher tasks like sensory processing, social skills, and bonding, reading and math, and more.
But the body doesn’t WAIT for this all to be accomplished, and at a certain time, it starts working on the next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy Safety and Security, a series of tasks that, once accomplished, should be done almost unconsciously. This is a longer-term safety than the bottom level, using for the first time, initiating movement, and really starting to manage themselves. To an infant, this could be crying when it needs help, and cooing and playing with caregivers. To an adult, it means making sure you have a job and a place to live and health insurance. The part of the brain that accomplishes this is the spinal sympathetic nerve and cerebellum, the top of the brainstem and bottom of the limbic system. We use our muscles to get around and obtain nutrients, establish balance, ensure we’re warm or cool enough, have a continuing safe environment, etc. Appropriate reflexes: TLR, Moro, STNR, Landau, Amphibian, vestibular-occular. Our balance establishes, we learn to stay in motion and pay attention and focus. Learning rhythm enables a sense of safety. As the cerebellum is heavily linked to all parts of the brain, it’s critical in developing healthy attention and focus, fine motor control, learning, and response to addictions.
When the body has a good start on cerebellar tasks, the prime focus turns to Love and Belonging, something that shares both conscious and unconscious tasks. The limbic system, above the brainstem but below the corpus callosum and cerebral cortex, along with activation of the ventral vagus nerve, is the seat of emotions, memory, bonding. The amygdala and hippocampus are crucial in pleasure, fear, and memory, and the three are strongly connected. Here our mammalian characteristics really come into play, with personality, playfulness, connections to others, the whole range of emotions. Relevant reflexes include the Moro, Suck and Root, Babkin, and palmar, as well as more visual-occular maturation.
It should be noted that if the lower two sets of tasks and layers of the brain have not developed as they should at this point, the entire system must cope around them. The lower levels are not amenable to reason or effort to persuade it to change, as life is at this level. For instance, one subconsciously breathes as needed, but can consciously either hyperventilate or hold one’s breath.
By the next level, the primitive and postural reflexes should be matured. Our bodies should automatically choose the correct level of alarm or calm appropriate to the situation, and our assessment of danger should be dependent on the environment, with only subliminal input from our unconscious body. This level, Maslow’s Self-Esteem, is totally on the conscious level. Again, to the extent that the lower levels are not developed, there will be less resources available to fully develop this level. The corpus callosum sits between the limbic system and the cerebral cortex and connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Self-esteem depends on one’s self-concept and assessment of those around him. (JASON: around you? How do I do that?). Do you respect yourself and those around you? Do others respect themselves and you? Much of that depends on becoming comfortable with oneself, with important parts in lower levels, but also dependent upon smooth functioning of the cortex. For two-year-olds, self-esteem might be a question of whether you can walk across the room or potty-train. For eight-year-olds, can you ride a bicycle? For teens, it may be more of grades, acne, and independence, as well as relations with peers.
All these tasks are dependent on quick and automatic functioning of the cortex, aided by the corpus callosum. Memory and organization, movement skills and reading body language, literacy, behavior choices, sensory processing, filtering internal and external stimuli to further mature attention and focus skills, which will be fully developed at the next level: Self-actualization
Self-actualization, at the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is accomplished by the prefrontal cortex. Here, the proficient function of the rest of the brain enables the “be all you can be,” as the Army would put it. Full consciousness thrives here. Psychologists would term this function “maturity” — and medical people call the ideal functioning of this area “robust mental health.” Here the person’s ability to filter out the unimportant, to think and plan, to experience empathy and altruism, to give back to the world. Glitches, unfinished maturities, broken connections, or other less-than-optimal functioning of the lower levels will hamper full and easy functioning in this level.
Conscious efforts to improve are effective in the top two levels, self-esteem and self-actualization. Practicing skills or repeated knowledge drills, for instance, will improve performance. But when that doesn’t work, or when proper emotional, physical, or performance skills, like riding a bicycle, or reading, or self-regulation, doesn’t come naturally, we have been at a loss as to how to change and grow.
Fortunately, we now have answers – to broken connections due to emotional trauma, traumatic brain injuries, surgeries, chemo, and aging. We have drug-free, medication-free answers for those who want to have life be easier, for anxiety that talk therapy doesn’t totally deal with. Answers that have us exercising to build connections that will last, eventually without the exercise. Answers that will help our eyes work together, process sensory input, and so much more. Enter my world!