08 March 2011

The Whole Brain: Satisfying Integrated Networks of Human Need

Neurological disorders can instruct us on specific functions of the brain and nervous system. However, if we do not have a reasonable understanding of integrative system functions, we are much less likely to address the root causes and what can be done to prevent or even cure the disorders. I propose a multi-dimensional theory of encompassing needs and their impact on the structures and functions of the brain. Physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional brain functions each have associated and interdependent needs. They require synchronous and balanced satisfaction in all areas to achieve physiological wellness. I will discuss the physiological impact of the satisfaction or deprivation of those needs in a systemic context.

Individual Needs
I have posited in other papers the role of fundamental human needs in producing individual well-being as well as the impact of those needs in shaping human sociality from family life to global politics and economics. Now I get to the functional origin of all those complex systems, the human mind.

Each of our needs categories has a different region and/or network of operations within the central nervous system. Our physical needs are indicated, sought, and satisfied via our physical brain networks. We all know that we need food, clothing, and shelter to survive. Also, in order for our species to survive, we need to procreate. We are biologically imbedded with the drive to survive. Most every area of biological research has addressed these complex interactions of our physiological compulsion to eat, “nest,” procreate, and defend. However, on the microcellular level, we also have the physical need for adequate structures for biochemical and bioelectrical processing. Foreign or genetic interference with these processes can manifest a spectrum of illness and disorder.

From an evolutionist perspective, those needs are responsible for our species-specific traits and behaviors. However, those are not the only needs that influence our traits and behaviors.

Emotional brain networks are motivated by the need to function in a system larger than self. As, per Systems Theory (Bertalanffy, 1965) all molecules and organisms function within a system. Humans, as part of those systems function toward increasing the order of those systems. Natural, open systems, such as ecological biology reproduce, perpetuate, expand, and evolve systems effectiveness.

Cooperative sociality is the ultimate power to expand system functions. These functions are developed and improved in infant-parenting interactions that develop or inhibit the efficacy of future social interactions. Swain and his colleagues (2007) have recently done important work in expanding John Bowlby’s attachment theory of a “universal human need to form affect laden bonds” (p.263). They detailed the complex interactions of the mesocorticalimbic and the nigrostriatal dopamine systems in reward behavior motivating responses to infant cues such as crying. They are “important in activating healthy maternal reward and motivational circuits” (p.268). These circuits, however, can be “hijacked” by cocaine use, which substitutes all those emotional responses, and minimizes the natural intrinsic rewards. Lack of appropriate emotional response from his addicted, unresponsive mother reduces the child’s future capacity to respond emotionally to others.

People with organized attachment patterns showed increased activity in the right amygdala, left hippocampus, and right inferior frontal gyrus. Areas of social and emotional empathy activation are in the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporal cortex.

Spiritual brain networks form and respond to idealizations, which are responsible for planning, setting goals, inquiry, and all forms of symbolic creativity. We all have the spiritual need to imagine, believe, and create. The ultimate satisfaction of this need is to imagine one thing, believe in it, and see the fruits or evidence of that belief manifested in physical creation or experience. The motivator for that satisfaction is the deeper, spiritual need to understand abstract ideals via interpretation of internal sensory stimuli translated to outward reality.

The ideal of the perfect self is universally acknowledged to exist outside of self. Therefore, spiritual experiences often include the suppression of self-awareness and a connection to a transcendental self of an ultimately idealistic nature. Johnstone and Glass (2008) created a basic model of spiritual activity in the brain where “individuals may experience transcendence (feelings of universal unity and decreased sense of self) by minimizing right parietal functions through conscious effort, as in meditation” (p.871). The also proposed the need for further understanding the role of the thalamus’ attentional abilities and the emotional impact of the limbic system in spiritual experiences.

Emotions are internal stimuli, which the spiritual network has a need to comprehend and integrate, so emotional and spiritual needs have many overlapping circuits.

Simply put, we need ideals to become real. Balanced satisfaction of this need produces evolutionary effects. Dissatisfaction produces intellectual reinterpretation of ideals.

Intellectual brain networks have the primary need to understand and apply knowledge through chains of logic based on the analysis of external sensory stimuli (versus the internal sensory analysis of the spiritual network). Spiritual inquiry and creativity is an independent precursor to intellectual knowledge or intellectual knowledge can motivate spiritual inquiry. When used in a cycle of discovery, spiritual, physical, and intellectual knowledge, effectively integrated produces understanding of universal ideal.

On a more basic level, our intellectual network gives us sound and analysis necessary in language, sight analysis for vision and recognition, numbers and logic, and all of our conscious learning and interpretation of the world around us.

Physiological Impact
The satisfaction of each of these needs can be monitored through analysis of inductive valences. Dissatisfaction or deprivation causes negative valence in proportion to the force of potential need an experience produces. Need-satisfying stimuli and experience has a positive valence. The integrated satisfaction of all needs creates a continuous chemical-electrical circuit with an uninterrupted current. There are tremendous dampening and inhibiting mechanisms to maintain equilibrium and a sense of well being so specific valences are easily confounded and difficult to research. However, understanding this circuitry reduces the number of potential reactions into these categories.

Each of these networks is still part of the larger network of the mind. The corpus collosum is the primary integrative body of the brain. Because each of the needs networks, themselves have inter-brain connectivity, defects in the corpus collosum can affect the capacity to have single needs acknowledged or satisfied. The negative effects are amplified when cross-network amplifications are inhibited by impaired connectivity. Lynn Paul and her colleagues (Apr. 2007) have drawn vital connections to malformations of the corpus collosum and a number of psychiatric problems such as autism, A.D.H.D., schizophrenia and bipolar.

Many experiences and expressions emerge from integrated functions of the different networks. I will call this Needs Network Amplification (NNA). Trust, for example, is based on the need of the spiritual network to believe, which is then connected to the emotional network need for interpersonal attachment. The need to believe in something becomes the need to believe in someone, which is then amplified with the need to belong with or connect to an intimate social network. This integration can then be attached to the physical bonding networks of sexual function to form the very powerful romantic love. When faith and sociality are combined (trust) with intellectual networks we have a high-valence learning environment or a powerful spiritual orator.

What of the impact of the physical needs network interactions with other needs networks? Robert Brummer notes the powerful connections of the “brain-gut axis” “describing the bidirectional communication pathways connecting cognitive and emotional centers in the brain with neuroendocrine centers, the enteric nervous system and the immune system” (p.98). This model offers explanations for the high comorbidity of affective and psychiatric disorders with GI disorders. This also hints at the nutritional components of human physical need with the intricate network mechanisms which allow serotonin formation across the blood-brain barrier.

The more integrated the needs-satisfaction network, the more powerful the effect on well-being will be (both positive and negative). If any part, of any of the networks is impaired or underdeveloped, substituting behaviors take place. In this state, the integrated networks are activated, but the valence is low, so satisfaction is only minimally experienced or not at all. These minimally satisfying substitutions do not signal a need for change, they signal a need for more of the substitution to satisfy. I suggest that this mechanism is the source of addiction in all its forms.

There is much more to discuss and study in detailing the integration and satisfaction of physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs networks. The impact of needs network application is expandable to all forms of human experience. Understanding the impact of needs conflict and satisfaction will offer infinite insight into affective and psychiatric disorder with new directions in therapeutic technique. This is in no way a complete or comprehensive explanation of physiological needs manifestations, but it sets the stage for my own future research and development.


Brummer, R.J. (May 2005). Nutritional modulation of the “brain-gut axis.” Scandanavia journal of nutrition 49:98-105

Johnstone, B & Glass, B (2008). Support for a neuropsychological model of spirituality in persons with traumatic brain injury. Zygon 43: 861-874

Paul, Lynn et al (Apr 2007). Agenesis of the corpus collosum: genetic, developmental and functional aspects of connectivity. Nature reviews: neuroscience, 8: 287-299.

Swain, J.E. et al (2007). Brain basis of early parent interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 48:262-287

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