Whether you say “problems,” “issues,” or “challenges”, we human beings are certainly busy with them! They’re most obvious in our children, but we’re starting to also hear of adults with:
- stress management
- autism spectrum
- developmental delays
- dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalcula
- poor emotional control
- social skills deficit
- “failure to launch” delays in maturation
What do all of these have in common?
- They’re all happening more and more.
- They’re all increasingly difficult – and expensive – to cope with
- We presume that there’s no real way to remedy them
They all have the same very broad fundamental cause: poor neuronal connections, particularly at the sub-cortical level. And they can all be significantly helped with basic interventions to make and strengthen those connections.
That’s a bold statement to make! What accounts for the profound changes that babies, children, adults and seniors experience?
Let’s back way up, and take a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
In the 1940’s, psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy (not in a pyramid form) where he suggested that our attention and energy are focused on increasingly abstract needs. The first two levels are concerned with survival: long-term and short-term. The next ones are centered around relationships and belonging needs, then about competence and how we manage life. Finally, we arrive at self-actualization, the full flowering of who we were meant to be.
Others have different visions of this basic hierarchy and have termed Maslow’s hierarchy outdated, but its basic nature serves this discussion well.
Notice how the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy is largely accomplished by the brainstem, lying at the bottom of the brain. Likewise, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy is a function of the very top, last-developed part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The in-between layers, depicted in yellow, green and blue, correspond largely to one another as well, with tentacles reaching up and down to other layers. For instance, what Maslow termed “love and relationships” is accomplished by the Limbic system, in the midbrain, but requires the lower level’s security as well as the upper level’s attention.
At the base of our nervous system, we rely on our basic senses – the five that we’re taught in elementary school, plus proprioception – the knowledge of where we are in space (you can tell whether your elbow is bent without looking at it, for instance) as well as interoception (hunger, thirst, cramping muscle, etc). The hierarchies continue to have largely horizontal congruence, with interweaving into more basic and more advanced layers.
The payoff comes when we consider all three together and look at the big picture.
Self-actualization/Prefrontal cortex/Judgment, common sense, setting priorities, focus/attention:
- The US Army calls this “Be All You Can Be.”
- Religious people look at the same thing and call it “Holiness.”
- Psychologists term it “Maturity” or “Adulthood.”
- The medical community? They see it and say “Robust Mental Health.”
If you look at what happens in the blue section with the Esteem/Cerebral Cortex: among other things, this is where academic learning takes place.
We strive mightily to help people at these levels. Programs, education, support for addiction, mental health and more can help with coping, but we’re still coping around a basic problem.
When we can’t directly address mental health issues, we mask them with expensive and sometimes damaging medication. We’ve even tried grading test papers with different color ink to minimize the impact on the test-takers. That struck me as effective as telling me to breathe and meditate during labor: I still know I’m trying to deliver a 9 pound baby! The child still knows he got the answer wrong.
All our efforts at dealing with these issues ignore a crucial point: they presuppose that we’ve mastered the bottom levels! And increasingly frequently, we haven’t – or something has happened to break the mastery of those levels.
This means there’s a physiological component to our difficulties! When we intervene at the bottom levels, especially if we employ holistic methods of sensory input to develop reflexes that should have been learned in our earliest months, facilitating pathways for sensory processing and motor coordination, the rest of learning and maturation are thus enabled.
Over and over, I am gratified to see people’s faces break into amazement, relief, and glee as they realize that obstacles they’ve struggled with for years are suddenly melted away. Parents particularly are delighted to finally see the changes they’ve known could happen – suddenly do.
When we’re quite young, the movement and sensory input we ideally get helps to make and strengthen connections in our brain. Studying the useful bits of these, along with information from movement theory, acupressure, developmental optometry, fetal and infant growth and development yield many ways of maturing the brain. The programs I teach are easy to learn, helpful for everyone throughout their lives!
A note about two of my favorite populations, seniors and people with Parkinson’s Disease: all of the above applies to you! My most dramatic change has come with a newly-diagnosed Parkinson’s patient. As an RN, I took care of people with Parkinson’s for decades: I administered L-Dopa and helped manage their deteriorating neurological status. I never knew the symptoms could be reversed! Yet, using these non-pharmaceutical holistic methods, they are! Likewise, these have huge implications for balance and memory issues. Anyone concerned with brain health, memory, and balance as they age will be much better off with these.
The pyramid, in depth:
A good way of explaining why we have so many behavioral, emotional and functional difficulties is to look at how the nervous system’s smaller, more basic parts contribute to the complexities of behavior.
Every complex thing is strongly dependent on how well the fundamentals work, and our nervous system is no exception.
Emotional outbursts, distractability, immaturity, and anxiety all point to a lack of completion, or inefficiency, in the functioning of the most fundamental part of our nervous system.
The fascinating part is how much our nervous system drives our most basic functioning as a human being!
Psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested in the 1940s that we first focus on our most fundamental building blocks, and when that’s accomplished, we focus on increasingly abstract and sophisticated needs. It turns out that this progression of tasks has parallels in both the structure of the brain, and the sequence in which our nervous system needs to develop.
Much like a factory needs machines to turn out its product, our body needs certain capabilities in place to function.
What are the most fundamental tasks of our nervous system?
First, we need to establish we have a body, and how it is functioning. In the brainstem, and its connection to our body, we learn that we exist, and how to keep ourselves alive and functioning (interoception), and the position of the parts of our body (proprioception). Our five traditional senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, develop to gather the information about our surroundings, so we can tell whether we’re in immediate danger (neuroception), and to freeze or shut down to cope with that danger.
A word about that last one: Danger means very different things to us, depending on our stage of life. If we’re a fetus, newborn, toddler, child or adult, we have different capabilities and expectations, managed largely by the brainstem, primitive (fetal and infant) reflexes, and dorsal vagus nerve. We need to un-learn being frightened of some things when we can manage them well, like sudden noises or being touched. This immediate survival is Maslow’s “physiological survival,” the bottom rung of his hierarchy. To the extent that we don’t totally shut down that reflexive fear from infancy, we’ll have difficulties as we grow into independence.
Once we realize that we can thrive, even with these sensory inputs, we can move on from to Maslow’s “Safety and Security” level – largely accomplished by the cerebellum – with connections reaching down to more basic parts of the brain, as well as the more sophisticated areas.
We learn long-term survival, which again means different things to us at different stages of our lives. When we’re newborn infants, it means that sensory input that surprises us will send us into a reflexive panic. When we’re two-year-olds, that means making sure Mommy or Daddy are close by. When we’re thirty-year-olds, that means do we have a job, and insurance, and savings? The cerebellum, which keeps us in motion, gives us balance and rhythm, helps to establish attention and learning, and habits that will help with this. Also, the spinal sympathetic cranial nerve, which gives us the energy and chemicals to dive into action, helps here.
Once we’re safe (at whatever age), our attention turns to what Dr. Maslow termed “love and belonging.” Again, as infants, this means an attachment to getting food – which brings the mammalian experience of pleasure and play. As seven-year-olds, we express it by playing with friends, and perhaps belonging to a scout troop. As thirty-year-olds, we look for longer-lasting relationships, especially romantic ones, and starting our own families. The amygdala, which has a role in the emotional fight/fright center, is part of our midbrain, or limbic system. The hormonal centers, cingulate gyrus and hippocampus, play a role too. Cranial nerves that govern the face, lungs, heart, gut and more are a pivotal part in building, maintaining, and healing our nervous system.
When we’ve established a place in the social fabric of society, Dr. Maslow proposed that we begin to work on self-esteem; that is, to value ourselves and others, and work towards being around those who value us and themselves. We do this with our cognitive brain, that part we all envision when someone says, “the brain.” A sheet, a mere six cells deep and scrunched together to form a mass of hills and valley–this accomplishes what most of us think of as brain function. It encompasses our conscious thought, as well as things like sensory processing and movement, behavior choices, language, reasoning, thinking and awareness, speech, memorization (with help from the limbic system) and more. By the time we’re up here, our reflexes that have us feeling safe, as well as those that maintain good posture and locomotion, should be well-established. Now, if we’re in danger, it’s a matter of sensory and conscious awareness.
With self-esteem well in place, doing what we think we should be able to do at this point in our lives, what Dr. Maslow calls “Self-actualization” gets our attention. The part of the cortex that’s behind our foreheads takes care of this full flowering of our humanity. The Army calls it “Be all you can be,” psychologists may call it “maturity,” spiritual people call it “holiness” – but medical people call this “robust mental health.” In this area of our lives, we have good judgement and common sense. We have an age-appropriate attention and focusing on what we choose. We experience empathy, have good ability to plan, prioritize, and organize ourselves and others. Leadership, executive skills, abstract and concrete reasoning come into full bloom here.
Optimum number and strength of connections between this part of the brain and the rest of our brain is crucial to get good prefrontal function. Still-active baby reflexes, or unfinished postural reflexes, or under-developed, or poorly-linked parts of the brain won’t furnish this prefrontal cortex with the information it needs to make optimum decisions. We MUST go through the physical stages of life, with enough sensory input, that will stimulate the brain to complete its job. Skipping or leaving unmastered tasks like crawling, handwriting, or the “terrible twos” hampers our ability to flourish in this stage.
All of this gives us a good way to think about what happens when we have difficulty accomplishing a certain level. When people get “stuck” and struggle with sensory processing, reading, or controlling their emotions, the traditional approach is to practice that skill. We’re finding more often that the REASON the difficulty is experienced is because more fundamental skills below it on the pyramid are not enabling easy learning of a higher skill. Like when you learn to read, you must first be able to see the page, be able to see a difference between letters, like “c” and “e” or “b” and “d.” Then you can learn what each letter says, learn to recognize that letter’s function in a word, and so on. Sometimes, what we need are glasses, not extra practice recognizing the word “cat.”
And that’s what this work is all about: recognizing how unfinished maturity of a fundamental part of the nervous system affects so many things in the full flourishing of our lives. When the fundamentals are there, not only can we learn to distinguish “c” from “e,” but we can see where we’re going, draw better pictures, recognize friends, and more.
Want to buy the pyramid? (coming soon)