Exploring Brain-Based Needs

by Larry K. Brendtro

The leading pioneer in research on developmental needs was Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). Ironically, as a youth, he was deprived of positive support from his own parents, peers, and teachers. His father Samuel escaped from an unhappy home in Russia by sailing alone to America when only fourteen. Becoming a barrel maker in Brooklyn, he perpetuated poor parenting of his seven children with comments like, “Isn’t Abe the ugliest kid you’ve ever seen?” Maslow’s mother hurled more hostility, and later in life he would describe “her total selfishness, her lack of love for anyone else in the world, even her own husband and children.”[1] Yet Maslow surmounted the shaky self-esteem of his childhood by recognizing that his parents were products of an unhappy upbringing.

As a youth, Maslow experienced frequent anti-Semitic attacks, so he joined a gang of Jewish boys for protection. But, these peers rejected him when he refused to participate in their cruel activities. “I couldn’t throw rocks at girls and I couldn’t kill cats so I was ruled out of the gang.”[2] At school, he was treated contemptuously by many teachers, but one made a remarkable difference with her warmth. “I was just ready to love anybody,” Maslow recalled.[3] Such traumatic early experiences strengthened Maslow’s empathy for others. As a young psychologist, he studied Blackfoot Indians on a reserve in Ontario. He was profoundly impressed with the spirit of respect and generosity that permeated child-rearing in this indigenous culture.

In a classic 1943 article, Maslow proposed that psychological health depended on meeting innate human needs.[4] Generations later, he is still among the most cited psychologists of all time. This staying power is because he could translate complex social and biological information into profound but simple concepts. Modern research supports his hypothesis that the human brain is endowed with innate drives to meet biosocial needs for belongingness, esteem, self-actualization, and self-transcendence.[5] These principles are validated by decades of subsequent studies including Stanley Coopersmith’s foundations of self-esteem, Martin Brokenleg’s Circle of Courage values, and Ann Masten’s brain modules for resilience.[6]

The Model of Leadership and Service developed in 2008 by CF Learning also includes four similar biosocial needs, but additionally identifies needs for safety and adventure. Safety was a survival need in Maslow’s hierarchy. Further, Maslow’s 1964 discussion of peak experiences has parallels with adventure as "exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences.”[7] The Dueling Needs for Safety and Adventure, found here, extends this discussion.


1.  Hoffman, E. (1988). The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, p. 9.
2.  Hoffman 1988, p. 4.
3.  Hoffman, 1988, p. 4.
4.  Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
5.  Koltko-Rivera, M. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(2), 302-317.
6.  Brendtro, L., & Mitchell, M. (2015). Deep brain learning: Evidence based essentials in education, treatment, and youth development. Albion, MI: Starr Commonwealth.
7.  Corsini, R. (1998). Encyclopedia of psychology. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, p. 21.

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