Maslow’s Pyramid has finally been given a good remodeling. And it’s about time, that’s all I can say. Maslow’s long been a hero of mine, but the builder in me has been thinking about rebuilding his pyramid for awhile now using a number of recent social neuroscience’s findings as more up-to-date blueprints.
For those of you who may have forgotten Maslow’s contribution, he basically wrested psychology away from the Freudians and the behaviorists in the 1950s and 60s and put a human face it. He made the blasphemous claim that psychological and spiritual growth and development didn’t simply stop once the human body stopped growing, but rather, Maslow proclaimed that we humans have the potential to develop throughout our whole lives. This dovetails nicely with recent research confirming that our brains, well-cared for, hold the potential to remain plastic and resilient throughout the lifespan.
Self-Actualization Makes it Happen
The highest level of development for Maslow showed up in “self-actualized” people like Einstein, people who are “reality centered” and easily able to differentiate true from false. Self-actualized people are also “problem centered” – meaning they have integrated neural networks with good Executive Function that they can deploy in the service of identifying problems and working over whatever span of time is necessary to solve them. Maslow suggested such people were comfortable being alone – rather than having 50,000 friends on Facebook, they had a handful of healthy personal, face-to-face relationships.
Another person Maslow drew the qualities of self-actualization from was Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism. Based on the teachings of the Tao, Maslow suggested that the ways in which people fulfilled their essential needs are just as important as the needs themselves. Taking care of survival needs by selling home loans to people who can’t afford them, and who will be majorly stressed trying to make the payments, Maslow didn’t feel was necessarily the best path to self-actualization. Rather, by establishing meaningful, authentic, helpful connections to people places and causes outside ourselves – essential components of self-actualization – we become spontaneous and creative, loosen the binds of strict social convention, and begin do the work of making the world a truly better place for all. Were he alive today, I have little doubt Maslow would be a contemplative neuroscientist!
Peak-a Boo, I Feel You
Central to Maslow’s psychology were moments of extraordinary self-encounters known as Peak Experiences. He described these as profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture. Such moments elevate us above the day-to-day suffering of the world, while at the same time making us more aware of truth, justice, harmony, goodness, and compassion. Aren’t these things we would immediately sign ourselves and our kids up for if we only knew where, when or how?
Well parents are beginning to learn how, and according to Doug Kenrick and his colleagues at Arizona State University, this is one of many things that qualifies parenting for the new top spot on Maslow’s pyramid. Might this mean that parenting will begin to warrant increasing respect across the wider culture? It means precisely that in my book, literally. Because what happens in the early years reverberates profoundly all through the lifespan, I’ve long considered it to be the most important job on the planet. (To order, click here. :-) )
Parenting Isn’t Brain Surgery
“Parenting is much more complex than brain surgery,” says San Francisco State professor Ruth Cox, herself a Maslow scholar and a parent. “It requires parents to be flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable virtually 24/7, in perpetuity (borrowing freely from Dan Siegel here). But when the brain operation’s done, brain surgeons get to go home or go play golf. Parents get to keep working on their own and their children’s brains – not to mention hearts, minds, bodies and souls. And they have to shepherd and spur growth and development that doesn’t stress or overwhelm all while the patient is awake and often resisting!”
A Late Change of Heart
I never wanted to be a parent. Based upon my own early experiences as a kid, I didn’t see much upside in it. The costs of raising children and sending them to college ranges from a quarter to half a million dollars, and the financial return on that investment is generally a negative number. Nevertheless, at the age of 36 I found myself somewhat ambivalently embarking on the journey. But no one told me that becoming a parent would profoundly change my neurophysiology not to mention my hormone composition. Giving birth doesn’t only change mom’s hormone levels. The two gallons of testosterone I’d been producing daily immediately dropped by a third and my prolactin levels increased by as much as 20%, changes that began to radically alter my world view. As a father I could actually feel more neural resources suddenly become available to me, making me better able to manage anxiety, think more creatively, while becoming much less self-centered. Becoming a parent also expanded my awareness and desire for truthfulness, justice, harmony, goodness, and compassion. All truly Maslow-ian in the grand hierarchy of things.