Dopamine Awareness and Self-Actualization, Rethinking Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

by Charles Lyell on August 8, 2012

“I have discovered the missing link between the anthropoid apes and civilized men. It’s us!”  – Abraham Maslow

Long before the introduction of fMRIs, Abraham Maslow identified human deficiency needs (d-needs ) for food, sex, safety, acceptance, and esteem. These d-needs comprised the lower rungs of Maslow’s famous hierarchy. At the apex he added spiritual pursuits and called them being needs (b-needs).

Dr. Maslow estimated that less than 1% of us graduate to being needs. Maslow never figured out why so few missing links evolved into, what he referred to as, “a different breed of human beings,” and “almost ideally healthy human beings” before borrowing the term self-actualized from German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein.

Abraham Maslow was a brilliant man but without brain scanning equipment there was no way for him to know:

  • What he called d-needs included common dopamine-induced survival behaviors exhibited by chimpanzees.
  • The same dopamine that drives junkies to crave heroin keeps chimpanzees and Homo sapiens craving food, sex, power, security, acceptance, approval, attention, esteem, and status.
  • Our primitive ancestors developed natural addictions to the deficiency needs they shared with chimpanzees, then passed the addictions down to descendants.
  • Recent ancestors added unnatural addictions to dopamine-triggering drugs, gambling, diversions, ideologies, belief systems, and money.
  • Succeeding generations fashioned flimsy denials and deceptions that made it possible to convince themselves, one another, and unsuspecting offspring that destructive behaviors were normal, acceptable, and even admirable.

Like our predecessors, we rely on clever charades to artificially boost esteem / trigger dopamine by pretending we care about high-minded ideals. Meanwhile, a more honest look suggests most of us are doggedly committed to less lofty pursuits (triggering and protecting dopamine flow). Examples include safety addicts denying fears, approval addicts panicking at the hint of rejection, and esteem addicts getting rattled by real and imagined threats to status.

To make matters worse, few things exacerbate fears, threaten esteem, send stress levels through the roof, and turn dopamine flow off more than learning about how neurotransmitters manipulate behavior or admitting how much we have in common with chimpanzees and junkies.

To make matters worser, addicts are traumatized by the stress provoking thought of having to forgo seductive dopamine triggers that include the pain of dopamine-induced withdrawal.

At the slightest sense of dopamine withdrawal junkies inject, food addicts gorge, gamblers bet, safety addicts worship, power addicts scheme, money addicts cheat, approval addicts flock, esteem addicts flaunt, religion addicts condemn, while all deny, deny, deny.

The symptoms are the same for safety, power, attention, esteem, food, sex, gambling, money, religion, drug, and most other addicts:

  • Dearth of free will
  • Infinite capacity for self-deception
  • Dishonestly about dishonesty
  • Ability to deny the undeniable
  • Obsessive behaviors fueled by insatiable dopamine-induced cravings
  • Inability/unwillingness to acknowledge addictive behaviors
  • Penchant to say, believe, and/or do (almost) anything to avoid dopamine withdrawal
  • The delusion that quitting questionable behaviors is possible and even easy
  • Total disregard for the consequences of the addictive behaviors to themselves, the environment, or other living creatures

Which brings us to another of Maslow’s insights:

“Every baby has possibilities for self-actualization but most get it knocked out of them. I think of the self-actualizing man not as an ordinary man with something added but rather as the ordinary man with nothing taken away.”

Watch what happens when the above quote is restated to include what is currently known about dopamine and addictions.

“Every baby has possibilities for self-actualization but most get it knocked out of them. I think of the self-actualizing man not as an ordinary man with something added but rather as the ordinary man free of the crippling addictions that block self-actualization.”

Addictions explain why 99+% of us are too busy obsessing over petty primitive needs to care about anything (including being needs) other than maintaining dopamine flow.

As unhealthy as addictions can be, they are only one factor keeping addicts behaving more like missing links than self-actualized beings. A more significant factor is that addictions invariably include the self-deceptions, denials, and unconsciousness required to deny information that threatens the need to satisfy insatiable dopamine-induced cravings.

In other words:

  • It doesn’t matter if everyone starts out with the potential to self-actualize if we’re born into societies where impressionable children are easily seduced with addictive substances, beliefs, and behaviors.
  • Self-deceptions and denials are both by-products of addictions and keys to their continuity.
  • In denying dopamine-induced addictions we unconsciously deny ourselves the gift of consciousness.
  • It’s not necessary to give up positive additive behaviors that make us happy, healthy, wealthy, and/or wise.
  • It is necessary to give up negative addictive behaviors that exacerbate stress, induce misery, and keep us lying to ourselves and others.

The Good News: The truth truly can set us free

Self-actualization is not only possible, it’s available to anyone willing to honestly admit to the addictions undermining self-actualization.

There are challenges. Needles, obesity, STDs, emphysema, and cirrhosis make it difficult for heroin, food, sex, nicotine, and booze addicts to deny addictions. Unfortunately, the most common, dangerous, and destructive dopamine-induced addictions (to safety/power, attention/approval/acceptance, esteem/status, belief systems, and money) are considered normal and even admirable. This makes denying destructive behaviors so easy that few are willing to risk giving up the dopamine triggers, even when they inevitably add to their misery.

The Great News: admitting to addictions is easier than you might think

Self-actualization starts with being honest about the addictive behaviors that increase stress and misery.

At the same time, honesty makes life better and more enjoyable.

For example:

  • Admitting to safety addiction makes more sense than constantly running from and denying fears.
  • Admitting to approval addiction is less stressful than compulsively seeking approval and dreading rejection.
  • Admitting to esteem addiction is easier than being a slave to a brain chemical that punishes honesty, rewards self-deception, and results in the need to deny demeaning behaviors.

The Bad News: 99+% of us are terrified by honesty

“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.” – Albert Einstein.

If Einstein knew what is currently known about dopamine and addictions, instead of using “liberation from the self” he might have referred to “liberation from dopamine-induced addictive behaviors.”

You don’t have to be a Maslow or Einstein to understand why 99+% of us avoid the truth and cheat ourselves out of reaching our true potential as human beings.

Addicts avoid the truth because the truth really does hurt because threatening safety, approval, or status triggers the same painful withdrawal that sends junkies scrambling for the next fix.

Without honesty there can be no awareness, no consciousness, no self-actualization. That’s why the ancient Greeks challenged one another to “Know thyself.” And why Shakespeare had Polonius remind us, “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Dopamine-induced addictions are the reason less than 1% of the population are interested in knowing who they are, while 99+% remain false to ourselves about being false to ourselves.


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