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Excerpt from the NeuroLeadership Institute's "The Brain Is a Social Animal"

Posted November 05 2013

Think Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid explains it all?  Matthew Lieberman of the NeuroLeadership Institute challenges that theory by stating that our social needs might just be more important -- or at least as important -- as food and water.  Learn in this transcribed excerpt from "The Brain Is a Social Animal".

I can’t talk about social pain without first mentioning Naomi Eisenberger, and that’s not because she’s a source of social pain.  Naomi is a professor at UCLA.  She is my most important collaborator.  She is also my wife.  And the reason I have to mention her here is because, although with our son, he’s both of ours, when it comes to the social pain we’re going to talk about, he’s really much more her baby than mine.  So, I’m going to be conveying it to you, and sharing that data with you, but I want you to remember that this work is more hers than mine for this first chunk that I’m going to be talking about.

OK. So this may be familiar to a fair number of people in the room. This is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The very old idea goes back decades where he suggested that there is a hierarchy to the different needs that we have in our lives. And at the bottom, we have the most critical needs -- our biological, physiological and safety needs.  You can think of these as needs with a big old capital N.  These are the ones that you need because if you don’t have them, you’re going to die.  On top of that, you start to get into what are the more optional frou-frou lower case n kinds of needs.  It’s nice to be loved and have the regard of others, and if you can get to self-actualization, well, that’s nice, too, but none of those are going to prevent you from living and going on.  

Well, what Naomi and I would like to suggest is that this isn’t actually quite right.  That this pyramid doesn’t get it right, and that if we want to get it right we actually have to do some inverting here even though it’s not good for the physical foundation of a pyramid.  We think we need to switch these two things around and, in general, what I’m suggesting is that social processes and social connection may actually be more foundational than these biological, physiological and safety needs. Now again, this seems absolutely preposterous, rght?  How could social needs possibly come before your need for food, for water, for shelter?  It just doesn’t make any sense.  And that may be true for a lot of animals out there in the animal kingdom.  But for one kind of animal, it makes all the sense in the world.  And that one kind of animal -- we all partake of this group -- is mammals.  Because mammals, unlike a lot of other animals out there… our young are built massively immature.  They are incapable of taking care of themselves; they are incapable of going out and securing any of those resources they need for their own survival. Other animals don’t always have this problem, but mammals do.  Mammals, if they want to get the food, water, shelter that they need to survive from infancy to a point where they can take care of themselves, they depend on one thing more than anything else – mother.  Right?  Or a caregiver.  It doesn’t necessarily have to mean mother, but in most animal arenas it is the mother.  If you want to survive, you’d better stay socially connected to your caregivers.  If you don’t, if you’re a mammalian infant and you’re not connected to your social caregivers, you’re dead. Period. So, food, water, and those things are very, very important and you’re going to be dead without those, too.  But this is how you get those.  You get those by being socially connected, and that means that the brain is going to be set up to make sure, in mammals, that this doesn’t get lost. That we don’t get disconnected.  So babies cry, and they cry whenever they are socially disconnected from their caregivers. They cry when they are hungry, but they care about social connection from the moment they are born, okay? And on the flip side, parents care about social connection.  We don’t have to be wired that way but we are.  

When I say wired, I’m talking about a mix of things that are nature and nurture.  Nurture wires us. So I don’t mean to suggest that wired necessarily means that it’s all entirely inborn, although in this case, I think it is.  We’re pretty much pre-designed to have these kinds of reactions.  So, you need your parents; social connection is really important if you’re a mammal.  And for us, this suggests that this becomes a primary need, this comes before some of those others.   

We weren’t the only ones to think of this.  A long time ago, Mother Teresa wrote that there is much suffering in the world from hunger, from homelessness, from all kinds of diseases, but the greatest suffering is being lonely, feeling unloved, having noone. I’ve come more and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can experience.  So, if we take this seriously, if we now start to say that maybe the social needs are needs with a capital N and not a lowercase n, they’re serious needs.  There should be some consequences of that. These needs should have some of the features that we typically associate with the other kinds of needs that are “capital N” needs.  And what I mean by this is that whenever there is a need, there is an experiential state that we experience when we are deprived of that need. And it’s always a painful state. So, if you don’t have food, you feel hunger.  If you don’t have water, you feel thirst.  If you don’t have shelter, you either feel the temperature of the elements, you might be freezing in New York, or too hot in L.A., and if you don’t have social connection… 

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