Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the Brain


Maslows Hierachy of Needs and the BrainWe all have needs.  Needs that dictate our daily routines and needs that inspire us to transcend the ordinary aspects of life.  Depending upon our environment, personality, and cultural influences, our priorities or how our needs are expressed may look different from person to person; however, we all have primitive needs that must be fulfilled in order to live healthy, productive lives, as well as more abstract needs that impart purpose or meaning to our experiences.  In addition, there are more altruistic or empathy-based needs that stimulate desire and have a positive impact on those around us, and motivate us to be a Force for Good in the world. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, 1943, posited that all human beings have “deficiency needs” such as eating, drinking, or sleeping, where a person does not feel anything if they are met, but becomes anxious if they are not. Once those innate human needs are met, we begin the journey of personal growth, creativity, and fulfilling human potential culminating in self-actualization.  This process of the flowering of human consciousness is commonly known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, which has been met with both acclaim and critical evaluation in the realms of science and psychology. Once we move beyond biological drives to cognitive needs and beyond, what motivates or inspires us as individuals to express our authenticity, perform acts of kindness or compassion, and to seek social connectedness, meaning, beauty, or self-actualization?  And, finally, to look deep within ourselves and face the ultimate inner conflict, often referred to as “existential anxiety” or more distinctly, “the trauma of non-being”.

Other correspondences have been made, such as mapping connections between Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the subtle, energetic chakra system, as represented in this chart:

Maslow's Chakra ChartWhen considering this vast range of human needs, from biological, to cognitive and abstract, it begs the question, “Could Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs be represented by specific areas of the brain?”  This idea piqued my curiosity, and called for further research and deep contemplation, and my findings are offered here for your consideration.  Without further ado, let’s review Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (updated and expanded in 1970) and how those needs correlate with the anatomy and functions of the human brain.

brain stemFirst and foremost, there are primary biological and physiological needs, such as air, food, water, sleep, warmth, shelter, and sex, which  are controlled by the brainstem (central trunk of the mammalian brain). The brainstem is the posterior part of the brain, consisting of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata, which continues downward to form the spinal cord.  From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense.

  • Hypothalamus is part of the Limbic Lobe, deep within the Cerebrum.  It controls biological functions such as hunger, thirst, body temperature, and sex drive.
  • Medulla Oblongota is a cone-shaped neuronal mass located in the brainstem; it is the autonomic reflex center that regulates homeostatic processes within the body.  The Medulla Oblongota controls vasomotor functions such as rate and depth of breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.
  • Thalamus is primarily a sensory integration center, involved with memory, motivation, and acts as a hub, relaying information from the sensory receptors in every sensory system (except olfactory) to the cerebral cortex and associated primary cortical area of the brain.  However, it also controls our sleep cycles and the regulation of consciousness, sleep, and alertness.

After biological needs, there are needs related to physical and psychological safety, such as protection from the elements, security, order, law, and stability.  These needs are associated with the amygdala-prefrontal cortex connection. The amygdala, part of the limbic system, identifies threats in the environment and stimulates the fight-or-flight response, which gives rise to emotions such as fear, anxiety, and aggression.  In response to stimuli, the frontal lobes of the brain and the prefrontal cortex initiated executive functions such as judgement, impulse control (risk/fear analysis), morality, motivation/reward/pleasure, social and sexual behavior, and the development of our personality (as well as motor function, problem solving, regulating attention/distraction, complex planning, memory, and language).  The frontal cortex of the brain supports our ability to learn concrete rules, thereby allowing us to adhere to social norms and behave in ways that are in alignment with cultural beliefs and values.

Movement through the Prefrontal CortexIntertwined with our needs for safety, are the intrinsic needs for love, belongingness, friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance.  We often associate our emotional needs and the ability to give and receive love and affection, with the heart; yet, these heartfelt emotions are actually generated by the prefrontal cortex (part of the frontal lobe of the brain).  Social connectedness, affiliating or being part of a group, whether family, friendship, or work-related, is specifically linked to ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate.  Feelings of social disconnection or isolation are perceived in a similar manner as the threat of physical harm, and processed by the amygdala (fear response), the anterior cingulate cor­tex, and the insula.

Next, are the powerful esteem-related needs, which Maslow classified into two categories: esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, and independence), and the desire for reputation or respect from others (including status and prestige).  Our sense of self-esteem resides in the neocortex (part of the more recently evolved cerebral cortex), which houses our conceptual sense of self.  Located within the neocortex is the insula; it is specialized at observing our internal landscape, facilitating self-awareness and self-reflection.  One hypothesis is that this encompasses the awareness of our bodies and emotions, and how they interact to create our perception of the present moment.  The desire for outward qualities such as social status, reputation, or respect is a function of the frontostriatal pathway, which connects the medial prefrontal cortex (related to self-knowledge) to the ventral striatum (dealing with feelings of motivation and reward).  The frontostriatal pathway is strengthened every time we receive affirmation of our value or worthiness. Does this raise any flags with regard to social media interactions and the “Like” button?

Cognitive needs for knowledge, curiosity, exploration, as well as the need for meaning and predictability, excite us to explore the relationship between ourselves and the world around us.  The caudate nucleus (one of the structures that make up the dorsal striatum, which is a component of the basal ganglia, near the thalamus) is responsible for processing feedback, and it uses information from past experiences to influence future actions and decisions.

Aesthetic needs and the refined sense of appreciation spark the desire to seek out beauty, balance, and form.  The frontal lobe and parietal lobe process information about aesthetic theories, experiences of natural objects and artistic creations (specifically the somatosensory area, which is responsible for object recognition, evaluation of weight, texture, etc.)

Diverse needs for self-actualization, seeking self-fulfillment, personal growth and peak experiences, culminate in realizing our personal potential.  These needs are generated by enhanced activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which orchestrates thoughts and actions in accordance with our internal goals.  This influential part of the brain is activated and strengthened by mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga or mindful movement, periods of relaxation, and scheduling time for self-nurturing activities such as taking a bath, going for contemplative walks, spending time with loved ones, celebrating accomplishments, and the pursuit of meaningful endeavors, whether that is represented by art, culture, philosophy, music, spirituality, etc.  This area of the brain also creates the awareness or sensation of “Being in the Flow”, a state of neural harmony where the disparate areas of the brain are in synch, working together.  This is also seen as a state of maximum cognitive efficiency. (Dan Goleman, PhD)  A stress-free condition is an essential element in self-actualization.

Beyond the realm of the self, abides the ephemeral need for transcendence.  The need for transcendence is represented by values which transcend the small, personal self: mystical experiences, witnessing the dynamic interplay of the natural world, aesthetic experiences such as music, art or poetry that touch the core of our being, the desire to be in service to others, the pursuit of science, spirituality, faith, and more.  For some, this need or “calling” may feel as powerful as an earthquake, and to others it may feel subtle and transient as a wisp of smoke. Science is beginning to understand that the mystical somewhat elusive realm of transcendence lies within the parietal cortex.  Scientists at Columbia University and Yale University have been researching how the parietal cortex processes spiritual experiences.  For a more personal perspective, watch the TedTalk “My Stroke of Insight” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, where she explains in detail her euphoric feelings of transcendence associated with the onset of a stroke.

Perhaps as we discover more about the interplay of human needs, science, spirit, mystical experiences, and human potential, deeper truths will be revealed about the evolutionary process for each and every person on this planet to become self-actualized.  I hope this piece has offered some deeper insights about your brain, it’s extraordinary potential, and most of all, the many wonders of the diversity of the human experience!

Walk in Beauty,

Devi Archer

Has your curiosity been ignited to learn more about the anatomy and functions of your brain?  Are you interested in learning how to heal the brain and deeply ingrained patterns that may be creating disease or conflict in your life, and limiting your human potential?  If your answer is yes, I strongly encourage you to join Brook Still's Brain Soulutions for a life changing workshop that will inspire you beyond words.

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1. The concept that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs could be correlated to lobes or areas of the brain was proposed by Epic Piper, Leadership through Change expert, who generously gave his permission to use his original idea and expand upon it.  Research and written material for this blog provided by Devi Archer.

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