In order to understand the human condition, one must first understand what it is that motivates humans. It follows that we must then look to the motivator, the brain. The human brain works in such a way as to satisfy a series of needs. Abraham H. Maslow’s theory of human motivation (1954) explains the sequence by which humans move through levels of concentration so as to best satisfy these needs. Maslow’s pyramid (1954), a five-tiered structure, represents a summary of this theory. Maslow (1954) postulates that in order for one to focus his/her attention on the ultimate goal at the apex of the pyramid, self-actualization, one must first fulfill the needs at the subordinate levels. At the lowest level of the chart are the physiological needs, followed by the need for safety, the belongingness and love needs, the esteem needs, and finally culminating in self-actualization. This paper will demonstrate how various brain mechanisms work to satisfy each echelon of needs, and further, how as all lesser needs are met, the individual may refocus his/her concentration to ascend the hierarchy towards self-actualization.
According to Maslow’s pyramid, the basest of human needs are physiological, in particular homeostasis and appetite. These necessities must be met before human consciousness can progress to the next level of concentration. Maslow’s theory gains support upon examining the breakdown of how the brain functions. Carter (1998) explains that the lateral and ventromedial hypothalamic nuclei are largely responsible for controlling when one feels hungry. While the lateral nucleus is responsible for detecting declining blood glucose levels, the ventromedial senses rising glucose levels. Thus, the lateral nucleus signals hunger while the ventromedial signals fullness. These nuclei are therefore responsible for making sure that the human body has the proper amount of fuel and nutrients. While these functions are not controlled by the conscious mind, in cases of extreme hunger the need to sate one’s appetite becomes the primary motivator in one’s actions (Maslow 1954). When a human being’s concern lies at this level of the pyramid, it can be said that (s)he is concerned with more primal matters, as opposed to the higher tiers when man’s state of mind is focused on ‘higher thought’;. When the hypothalamus is no longer demanding that the prefrontal cortex (the area affiliated with conciousness Carter 1998) seek food, the consciousness mind can then focus on the issue of security.
The next level in the hierarchy of needs pertains to security. The amygdala plays a key role in ensuring the safety of a human being. It is here where fear originates (Carter 1998). Once the frontal cortex identifies a source of fear, a plan of action to remedy an unsafe situation can be formulated by the frontal cortex (Carter 1998). If an individual is preoccupied with an unsafe or chaotic situation, (s)he will be unable to focus attention on the less essential aspects of existence. However, once an individual is both physiologically well and not in fear of any danger, (s)he may concentrate on the fine tuning of his/her emotional state.
The human brain releases the chemicals dopamine and oxytocin, which contribute to fulfilling what Maslow (1954) deemed the ‘belongingness and love needs’; (Maslow, 1954, 43). Dopamine, in association with the chemical phenylethylamine, has been said to induce the euphoria one feels in the initial stages of love (Carter 1998 ). Oxytocin, which has been associated with the feeling of relaxation that results from orgasm (Carter 1998) and which is also released during the terminal stages of childbirth (Carter 1998), creates a ‘warm, floaty, loving feeling that encourages pair bonding’; (Carter, 1998, 76). In intimate relationships such as those shared by sexual partners and by mother and child, it is necessary to create a feeling of love and belonging. The brain works to ensure that this occurs via the use of these chemicals.
In the event that one resides in a civilized society (i.e., one in which all subordinate needs in Maslow’s pyramid are met fairly consistently) (s)he may have the luxury of pursuing the esteem needs. According to Maslow (1954), self esteem is attained when one feel competent and also when one’s peers recognize that competency. The need for esteem is not one which is met in a simple manner. In order to achieve self-esteem, an individual must make conscious decisions which are conducive to meeting feelings of competency. In order to be competent, to achieve, one must also be able to plan prospective actions, an activity carried out by the Supplementary Motor Area (Carter 1998). Once an individual has made a plan, (s)he must be able to focus on the task at hand. The anterior cingulate cortex dictates this ability (Carter 1998). Once an individual has planned and effectively carried out a task, his/her ability is hopefully recognized by his/her peers, thus creating self-esteem within him/her.
All needs in Maslow’s pyramid are prelude to the need for self-actualization. Although self-actualization is non-essential in terms of survival, it is indicative of a society in which citizens are able to concentrate on the ‘higher’; forms of thinking. Self-actualization, or the process of becoming all that one has the potential to be (Maslow 1954), is perhaps one of the most sought after achievements in the eyes of civilized man. However, dependant on the unique conformation of each brain is the potential for how high an individual can ascend the social ladder. For instance, in order to be a successful businessperson, one must have the ability to set aside immediate satisfaction in favor of long-term rewards. The part of the brain normally associated with this ability is the orbito-frontal cortex (Carter 1998). People with damage to this area, or in whom it is not fully developed, will not have the ability to carry out such tasks as would make them successful in the field of business. In the more unique cases of highly artistic individuals, the areas of the brain that pertain to their area of expertise may be abnormal, thus making the actualization potential of these individuals largely different from that of non-artistic individuals. One such example can be seen in those deemed synaesthetes. These persons have a unique method of processing sensory information (Carter 1998) as they may claim to ‘hear’; colors. Studies show how their brain activity is dissimilar from most. In most people, response to specific stimuli only activates neurons in the auditory cortex, creating sound. In synaesthetes the visual cortex is also activated, creating this curious condition (Carter 1998). Such was the case with Vladimir Nabakov who claimed that different sounds, such as letters, each evoked disparate hues (Carter 1998). Realizing personal potential in people like Vladimir may include creating works of art representing their unique experiences, while people not born with this condition will self-actualize in other ways, such as business. The underlying theme is that each person has a distinctly different ability to help him/her move upwards through the social class system. Utilizing the anterior cingulate cortex and focusing on one’s specific talents, is the way in which the civilized brain achieves self-actualization.
As can be seen, human needs as dictated by the brain follow a distinct pecking order. Although human wants and desires are fulfilled in far more complex manners than a simple level-to-level ascension, Maslow’s pyramid provides a clearer understanding of the basic processes by which the human brain discerns what the conciousness should be most occupied with. Further, once the brain focuses on the object of desire, it may work in such as way as to satisfy that desire and thus ensure that the human being is prosperous and well-adjusted.