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August 29, 2014

Animal Madness, The Hierarchy of Needs and The Economics of Well-Being

I got done reading a book called, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves by Laurel Braitman (highly recommend).  In it, she explores how and why animals lose their minds and if there are any connections that can be drawn with human mental illness that might help us to understand and cope with our ailments.  Many aspects of animal mental illness are considered in the book like anxiety and depression, trauma and suicide, rage and revenge, inconsolable grief and phobias amongst many others.  Aside from more organic diseases that can be attributed to the breakdown of physiological or genetic processes, I distilled an important contributor to mental disorders in animals: stress induced by the deprivation of needs. 

Baby Orangatan
From a dog named Oliver, with severe separation anxiety, who would lick all the fur off his paws and ransack the apartment when ever the humans would leave, to elephants who would go on murderous rampages when beaten to their breaking point.  From gorillas that died of depression from being isolated, to racehorses that can't calm down without goat companions.  From dogs with PTSD from war and search-and-rescue missions, to birds with feather-plucking, self-destructive tendencies because they got their wings clipped.  From abused circus animals that might respond by becoming overly-vicious or by becoming numb and indifferent to any further inhumane treatment, to animals that are low in the hierarchy of their troop who get picked on to the point that they cease to take an interest in social affairs.  From chimpanzees who were frozen by fear in social situations because they were taken from their mothers too soon, to many seemingly bored animals whose boredom led them to obsessive-compulsive acts like hamsters running in their wheels for over 12 hours to complete exhaustion, polar bears who swim figure eights all day long in their swimming pool at the zoo, and dolphins who similarly swim in tight circles all day long in their enclosures.  There were even mentions of Harry Harlow's torturous experiments where mother-deprived, baby monkeys would endure starvation with a friendly-looking, soft doll rather than get milk from a metal, unwelcoming doll; showing that many beings prefer to be comforted over having their most basic physiological needs met.  It is truly eerie that such familiar complexity afflicts the lives and minds of our evolutionary relatives.  And as another proof of life's common ancestry on Earth, many of the pharmaceuticals we use on ourselves to treat mental disorders are used successfully to alter the biochemistry of animals like mice, bears, birds and cats who have seemingly similar mental ailments. 

Found Somewhere Warm to Sleep

A main point and rhetorical question of the book is, "How could an animal lose its mind, if it didn't have one?"  Evoking Charles Darwin, from his book The Descent of Man, she emphasizes that if evolution has gradually shaped and differentiated the bodies of species over time, then there's no reason to believe that the same process didn't shape our minds as well.  Darwin tried to prove by evolution and natural selection, much science affirming since, that the minds of humans and other animals only differ by degrees and flavors as would be expected if species were related by common descent.  After reading the book there was little doubt left in my mind that there was an enormous amount of commonality between our minds and those of other animals because example after example was given of animals who had mental disorders induced by things most people would become troubled by.  Being traumatized by seeing death and violence, the experience of torture and other abuses, being separated from loved ones, desiring for companionship, nurturing and love, the need for fairness, the need for routines and certainty, the need for acceptance, boredom, etc.  So many unmet needs leading to mental anguish though, like humans, variation in personality affect how different individuals respond to similar conditions.  All these unmet needs made me think of Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs.  I did some research and found the original 1943 paper in which the idea was presented called, "A Theory of Human Motivation."

Abraham Maslow put forward a seemingly stupid theory.  Stupid because it seemed so simple and obvious.

But if we stop to think a little deeper about what he postulated and the implications it might have for people, societies and the biosphere......it seems quite simply profound.  The basic premise of the hierarchy of needs as put forward in A Theory of Human Motivation is that, in some way, every person is neurotic, and the source of a person's neurosis is the level of need that is unmet.  For instance, if person X has clean air to breathe, good food to eat, clean water to drink, sufficient time to rest per day, enough sexual outlets, etc. (i.e. all the Physiological needs are met), but lacks safety because they live in a war zone...then person X will be neurotic with stress about how to meet their needs for safety.  If person X has never known the trauma of Physiological deprivation, then they will take those needs for granted and be overly-concerned with the next level of need, which is safety for person X.  All the levels above safety won't concern person X because if they can't even meet their fundamental needs then the higher levels of need won't be practical to waste energy on.  This means that a person whose basic needs are not met will not have the time nor energy to expend on things like self-actualization where they fulfill their unique potential as a creative, capable individual nor will benefit from the contributions such a person might make.

Of course, Maslow recognized that life is more complicated than a simple hierarchy and he really envisaged the Hierarchy of Needs as a graduated pyramid of percentages in that someone might have 60% of their Physiological needs met, 43% of their Safety needs met, 27 % of their Love/Belonging needs met, 13% of their Esteem needs met, and 2% of their Self-Actualization needs met.  Maslow also thought it was possible that some people might switch the order of their Hierarchy of Needs, for example, a starving artist might value Self-Actualization more than anything else.

Maslow felt that people tended to unconsciously take for granted the level(s) of needs that they always had met, but tended to be traumatized and consequently neurotic about the level of need they had experience the most deficiency in. 

I can think of many points of disagreement that I have with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs though they are more criticisms about things I think he overlooked and should've added.  Some things I think he overlooked or underestimated was the need for fairness, a healthy environment and the need for meaning (not just at the last level of Self-Actualization, but every level.  For even Viktor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning, talked about the importance of finding meaning in life, to go on living, even if you found yourself in a concentration camp.....which he did).  Another fundamental point I think Maslow missed, as I tried to illustrate at the beginning of this blog, is that animals just as much as humans have their Hierarchy of Needs too.  This should come as no surprise, for humans are just another kind of ape nestled in the kingdom of animals, evolutionarily related to all life on Earth.  That we are related means that we share many traits in common, including the capability of being driven mad by not having needs met.

In a brave, new world driven by technology and information where government has seemed to have taken a backseat to the gods of economy (Supply and Demand, Money and Capital, Productivity and Profit, Commodity and Trade) you'd think that we'd disproven Animal Madness and the Hierarchy of Needs, but I don't think that is the case.  Try as we might, we can't escape our biology nor our environment which dictate that certain needs must be met so that we're high-level functioning neurotics and not just down-and-out mad.
Even if you look at life from the standpoint of economics one must accept that people who are overwhelmed and exhausted by the stress of meeting their basic needs are not going to be productive in a way that makes society great.  Such stress is the breeding ground for extremism, self-destructiveness and irrationality.  A Great Society according to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and a rational society according to Animal Madness would be one that strove to meet as many levels of needs from the bottom up as it could.  Because, just like individuals can become neurotic and driven mad by unmet, fundamental needs...so too can societies.  If our society only secures the Physiological needs for us citizens, then we'll all be neurotic about trying to meet our safety needs.  But if our society uses it resources to meet as many of the needs of its people as it can and if it honors the environment by acknowledging that it and human effort and ingenuity are the only true sources of economic value, then maybe we might become a society which is neurotic about the noble effort of becoming Self-Actualized...rather than driven mad for all the wrong reasons.  We must remember that, like all the animals in the world, we are just as capable of being traumatized by our experiences and our unmet needs.  Thus we have to answer for ourselves whether such trauma and deprivation for some in our societies and biosphere, while others have much, will lead to the result we desire for.  Which is most economically, or otherwise, productive at the end of the day?  A few with all their needs met and most others overburdened with the stress of meeting their basic needs....or the masses with as many of their needs met as society can procure striving to ever higher levels of existence?

Something Like BFF!!!
-Seth Commichaux

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the article, thanks J.C.