This is the start of a series of Newsletters that focus on how children who have experienced abusive and/or neglectful childhoods, those children who are the focus of our work develop dysfunctional behaviours. Recently we examined our sense of self in two Newsletters. This prompted the impetus to go back to discuss basic human needs and drives. This examination will take the form of a series of essays that build towards a finished model.
Let’s start with the fundamental drives for all species, the drive to keep our particular gene profile alive. This is based on the work of Richard Dawkins who expanded Darwin’s model of survival of the fittest. Dawkins postulated that in its basic form, our bodies are just vehicles to maintain the survival of our particular genome. This was the foundation of our drive to survive, keep supporting our genes and to reproduce, ensuring that if, and when we die our genes will have been passed on to another host!
The fundamental purpose for our existence is to survive and reproduce! Of course, it is not that simple. All of us are driven to behave in lots of unique and complex ways however, if you look at any behaviour, the result of being ‘driven’ it can be traced back to these two instincts. Of course, the drive to reproduce becomes more significant as we reach maturity. It is not a real issue for primary aged students but does become a consideration for the secondary system, not only the curriculum but teacher awareness of the emergent attentiveness to the business of reproduction!
When we feel completely safe and secure we experience a level of calm that allows us to access the top levels of our brain. This is the position of homeostatic equilibrium. However, when we are not ‘safe and secure’ we experience a level of stress and that stress provides the drive to behave, to act in a way that will bring us back into equilibrium.
In the late 1960’s a psychologist named McLean introduced the concept of our brain that described it as having three distinct levels that were linked to our evolutionary journey. He called this the tri-part brain with the following stages:
- Primary Drives - the Reptilian Brain – the Brain Stem and Mid Brain
This part of the brain controls our physical homeostasis. Whenever we are placed in a stressful situation, in disequilibrium this zone initiates the behaviours that will bring us back to homeostasis. This is the area that controls things like breathing, our heart beat, our balance, those physical activities that allow us to physically survive.
Remember times when you had run ‘out of breath’, maybe under the water for too long recall how desperate you become to get some oxygen into your lungs. This desperation is the stress that fuels the behavioural drive.
The ‘lessons’ assembled in this part of the brain begin to happen from the moment of conception and continue through the very early years of infancy. We are born with the ability to breath but it takes a little time to master walking on two legs. A feature of these behaviours is that they are for all purposes, unconscious and very difficult to change.
This is referred to as the reptilian brain because this most reptiles failed to develop beyond that point. They do not have any social organisation and the times they do group together is because that environment supplies their physical needs such as food, water or the opportunity to reproduce.
- Secondary Drives - the Social/Emotional Brain – the Limbic System
This is the second stage of cognitive evolution and this occurred because of the benefits group living provided to meet our needs. The synergy provided by sharing the work needed to provide food, shelter and protection made living in groups much more productive however, it required cooperation. This cooperation enhanced our access to the elements required for survival and reproduction but we needed to learn an additional set of behaviours that would prevent the very fact that living together had a strong potential to threaten that very survival through competition for the resources to survive and reproduce.
The major threat to our safety and security that comes from communal living is the possibility to be excluded. In this stage of development, we learn to relate to others so that we are included in the sharing of desired, required resources.
The lessons learned here are almost but not quite as inflexible as those in the brain stem/midbrain but because they were predominantly learned in early childhood they are very hard to change and for our dysfunctional kids changes here are at the heart of providing success at school and beyond.
Despite some significant exception for all intents and purposes it is in this area of our brain problems of relating occur for the children we deal with. Thinking back over the more than 100 Newsletters most problems faced by teachers and/or dysfunctional students occur because of the mis-match between the social requirements to successfully belong in one environment and those to survive in the environment of the early childhood.
Schematic Representation of the Brain
- Tertiary Drives - the Intellectual Brain – the Cortical Areas and the Frontal Lobes
This is the last stage of our evolutionary development and it is where humans have gained the greatest advantage over our rival species. It is in this area we can initiate a wide range of behaviours that allow us to manipulate the physical environment to our advantage, we have built cars to travel, air conditioning to keep comfortable and the advances in medical practices have prolonged our life expectancy. We can modify the genes of plants to get more and improved plants, we have industrialised the capture of fish and so on. All these come from our intellectual brain.
Unfortunately, this has also allowed us to build weapons, dare I say it of ‘mass destruction’, exploited and polluted the planet’s resources to an extent that survival of our species is threatened.
This is the part of the brain that teachers need to get focused in the classroom. Remembering that behaviour, and learning is behaviour is only kindled when we are stressed and unlike the lower levels where a threat to initiate tension is relatively easy to achieve there is not much a teacher can ethically use to get the students to want to learn. The best we can do is ignite their curiosity.
In the next Newsletter(s) we will discuss models of needs and drives but this essay explains the underpinning of all behaviours and that is to survive and reproduce. I accept that some, if not all readers will disagree with my fundamental model but I argue that there are such a range of these models, the most influential being Maslow’s is because they are examining the secondary expression of the underpinning position of being in homeostatic disequilibrium.