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. D-needs comprised the lower rungs of Maslow’s famous hierarchy. At the apex he added spiritual pursuits, called being needs (b-needs).

Dr. Maslow estimated less than 1% 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 of knowing:

  • Deficiency needs included basic dopamine-induced survival behaviors common among apes.
  • The same dopamine driving junkies to crave heroin keeps all apes craving food, sex, power, security, acceptance, approval, attention, esteem, and status.
  • Our primitive ancestors developed natural addictions to deficiency needs, then bequeathed the addictions to descendants.
  • More-clever-than-sapient humans concocted unnatural addictions to dopamine-triggering drugs, gambling, diversions, ideologies, belief systems, and money.
  • Succeeding generations fashioned flimsy denials to convince one another their destructive behaviors were normal, acceptable, and even admirable.

Like our predecessors, we parlay charades to boost esteem (trigger dopamine) by espousing high-minded ideals. Meanwhile, an honest look suggests a dogged committment to lowly chemical pursuits (triggering and protecting dopamine flow). For example, safety addicts denying fears, approval addicts terrified of rejection, esteem addicts rattled by imagined threats to status.

To make matters worse, few turnoffs exacerbate fears, threaten esteem, send stress levels through the roof, and threaten dopamine flow more than admitting to similarities with junkies and apes or learning about how neurotransmitters keep us from understanding how neurotransmitters manipulate behavior.

To make matters worser, addicts are traumatized by the stress provoking thought of forgoing seductive dopamine triggers and expectations of suffering the agony of dopamine-induced withdrawals.

Dopamine-induced withdrawals send junkies injecting, foodies gorging, gamblers betting, safety addicts worshiping, power addicts scheming, money addicts cheating, approval addicts flocking, esteem addicts flaunting, religion addicts condemning, and all denying, denying, denying.

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 withdrawal
  • Delusions about quitting questionable behaviors being possible and even easy
  • Disregard for addictive behaviors’ consequences, to themselves, loved ones, strangers, environments, and 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 rephrased 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 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 deceptions, denials, and unconsciousness required to deny anything threatening 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 as long as we’re born into societies where impressionable children are seduced with addictive substances, beliefs, and behaviors.
  • Deceptions and denials are 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 leave us happy, healthy, wealthy, and/or wise.
  • It is necessary to give up negative addictive behaviors that exacerbate stress, threaten health, induce misery, and necessitate self-deceptions.

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 seductive dopamine triggers. Especially when challenging deceptions guarantees peer disapproval and rejection.

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 frantically 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 necessitates denying demeaning behaviors.

The Bad News: 99+% of us despise 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’s Polonius reminded, “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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