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Human needs: a neuropsychological theory

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Human needs: a neuropsychological theory

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Creating a new theory of human needs

This article outlines a new neuropsychological theory of human needs. This is based on my first hand observations of working with children and families, and, additionally, through analysis of recent neuro-scientific research, and a systematic review of almost a century of psychological theories of human needs. This article doesn’t outline the research, only presents the theory and applying it to assist you in understanding children’s behaviour. 

I am in the process of putting the research into an academic paper, which I will seek to have published. I will also be applying for funding and ethical approval for primary research to investigate the validity of my theory. If you wish to discuss or use this theory please attribute it to me appropriately. If you are interested in helping with this project, please get in contact.

The basis of the theory: regulation

The basis of this theory is that fundamentally, all humans have a “simple” need for regulation. Our need for regulation, is the driver of all our behaviour. The real questions then become; what is it that we need to regulate? and what do we need for that regulation to take place? Only then can we start to understand human behaviour. I propose that there are five key areas of regulation:

  1. Physical
  2. Sensory
  3. Cognitive
  4. Emotional
  5. Psychological

We need to understand what elements we need for regulation in each area. However, it is first important to understand that all human factors interact with each other, so needs do not and cannot happen in isolation from each other. Everything impacts our psychology, likewise our psychology impacts everything. For example, hunger impacts our emotions, heightens our perception of smell and taste, impacts concentration, and influences our behaviour.

This happens because all of these elements are interpreted by our brains. Our neurology is everything. This means that equally, if we are feeling psychologically disconnected, it will likely impact our eating behaviour, how our brains process sensory information and the impact of our emotions on our behaviour. This also also happens in our brain.

For this reason, my needs theory is derived both from studying human behaviour, and from studying the brain: neuropsychology. I identified seven fundamental neuropsychological human needs. As you will see “regulation” is one of these; therefore, all of the aforementioned areas of regulation, are included within the theory.

Wilding's neuropsychological model

The seven fundamental human needs, I have identified are: 
  1. Regulation
  2. Protection
  3. Predictability
  4. Connection
  5. Recognition
  6. Autonomy
  7. Novelty

I will describe each of these in details below.

The human need for regulation

We can already see the complex interaction within regulation through our need to be psychologically regulated in order to have our needs met, at the same time as regulation of all areas, being one of those needs. Regulation therefore includes the four areas described in this section, and the other six sections that encompass psychological regulation. In regard to the four “other” categories of regulation, this is a very brief description, not because they are less important, but because there is so much to say for each, that I will have to tackle these in separate articles. This graphic shows the four categories and their remit.
the four elements of human regulation diagram

Physical regulation

Least necessary to explain, is our need to keep our body systems working correctly, maintain our energy, and our health. However, we are often unaware of our physical dysregulation. There are many reasons for this including, but not limited to; having been conditioned by our upbringing to ignore our cues;living in environments in which it is not possible to meet our needs; because some people’s neurology means that they do not perceive bodily signals strongly; or because children have not yet developed this perception.

This means sometimes we have to guess whether we are physically regulated, or not, or most particularly if our child is regulated.

7 areas of physical regulation

Children who are hungry, dehydrated, cold, hot, unwell, constipated, or who have high blood sugar levels, are likely to display difficult behaviour as a result. It is often easy to forget, when faced with challenging behaviour, that the child could simply be “hangry”.

Cognitive regulation

Cognitive regulation relates to what is often described as executive function. In short, this is the brain’s ability to cross communicate and organise thought processes. When executive function isn’t happening well, people seek out stimulation, feel overwhelmed, and/or are much less able to meet their own needs. In young children, their brain connections are not yet sufficiently developed for cognitive disregulation to significantly impact their behaviour.They just do not organise their thoughts, multi-task, hold details in their memories whilst doing something, plan, prioritise, nor have a concept of time.
the eight senses
Luckily, we rarely require them to manage this themselves. In teenagers and adults, mental stimulation, the ability to think clearly, and organise your thoughts, are important to regulation. We often describe this as the “mental load”, and what we mean is, how much your brain is trying to deal with at once.
Feeling mentally overloaded, overwhelmed, unable to think clearly, forgetful, disorganised or unprepared creates distress as a result.

Sensory regulation

Sensory regulation relates to the fact that our brains need the right balance of sensory input. Consequently, if we perceive too much sensory input from any one of our eight senses, we will display avoiding behaviour and can become overwhelmed. Whereas, if we perceive too little sensory input in any area, we will display sensory seeking behaviour. Please look out for an upcoming article on this.

Children who have experienced, or are experiencing, too much sensory input, or who are highly sensitive to sensory input, are more likely to have extreme reactions to minor events.

the eight senses

Similarly, children who have experienced, or are experiencing, too much sensory input, or who are highly sensitive to sensory input, are more likely to have extreme reactions to minor events. Those who are not receiving enough sensory input, either through lack of opportunity, or because they are under-sensitive to sensory stimuli, will seek those experiences in any way they can, including in ways we would prefer they don’t. Many of these behaviours are perceived as “naughtiness”, especially when the child cannot seem to stop when told, these include; climbing on furniture; biting; chewing items or clothes; pushing against people; moving a lot; making loud noises; fiddling; and many other things.

Emotional regulation

Emotional regulation does not mean to avoid emotions, or more commonly, to avoid emotions perceived as negative. Nor does it mean to always be happy, or even always be content. When emotionally regulated we can experience emotions without becoming overwhelmed, or triggered into a disproportionate response. Emotional dysregulation occurs often. Part of regulating our emotions is being able to bring ourselves back from our initial response that takes us out of regulation. Children do not have the brain connections to do this without support. They are unable, due to neurological development, to properly emotionally self-regulate until they are in their twenties. Their abilities develop gradually from about 5-7 years old at the earliest. Many adults find it very difficult to emotionally self-regulate too, mostly because they were not modelled this behaviour in childhood.

A child who is experiencing emotional dysregulation, or who has not processed emotional upset from something previously, is likely to be very reactive in their behaviour and may be less cooperative than usual.

What are emotions?

Despite having said that I won’t to go into great detail here, I do need to elaborate on emotions, because of their interaction with needs and behaviour.

When someone’s needs are unmet, they experience emotions. These are signals indicating we need to take action in order to meet our needs. Emotions serve three purposes: to elicit motivation, provide energy to act, and cause us to reflect and remember. They indicate how to act to meet our needs, and contribute to activating other cognitive and physiological systems when necessary. All emotions, are both necessary and have a specific purpose.

The film “Inside Out” is a wonderful representation of the importance and purpose of our emotions. It only shows only 5 of the seven core emotions, because experts felt more would be too complex for small children. However, it explains the neuropschology of emotions and memory pretty well!

Introducing the 7 core emotions









Repeat the behaviour, it met our needs

Take time to rest and recover from loss

Act to make something stop or change

Caution: risk of physical/social poison

Protect your life, you are in danger

Retreat quickly before you respond

You need to act to reflect and repair

This connection meets my needs, keep it

the purpose of emotions

It’s important to understand because emotions’ purposes are to make us act. We feel, we act, then we reflect, storing information on how to act next time. This memory, and the newly associated emotional responses, influence future behaviour. In essence: we have a need, we feel, we act, we reflect, we remember and repeat or change. 

Needs are therefore the drivers of all behaviour, drivers of our emotions, which act as the conduit between the two. 
How children experience dysregulation: (consciously or subconsciously)
  • I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, cold, hot, in pain.
  • I feel ill
  • I’m scared, angry, sad etc
  • My environment is overwhelming me
  • I need to move more
  • I need some human contact (touch, cuddles)
  • I’m being bombarded with information
  • I need space
  • I need more autonomy, novelty, protection, predictability, recognition and connection.
If my child is behaving in a difficult way, as a parent, I can ask myself:
  • Are they tired, hungry, thirsty, unwell, too hot, too cold etc?
  • Is there something in their environment that is bothering them?
  • Do they need to move more or less?
  • Do they need some human touch?
  • Are they still struggling with emotional upset from some previous experience?
  • Do they need some physical space or to be wrapped up?
  • Are they being bombarded with information?
  • What about their other needs?

Psychological regulation

We are psychologically regulated when we are physically, sensorily, cognitively and emotionally regulated; and we meet the following six needs. These are:

  • Regulation of the factors described above.
  • Protection
  • Predictability
  • Connection
  • Recognition
  • Autonomy
  • Novelty
7 areas of psychological regulation
protection basic human need

The human need for protection

Now, you may think I have just reworded Maslow's "safety" heading but this need is so much more. There are three main factors here:

  • The need to be protected by others. In the early days of infancy this is crucial to our very survival and, although it changes as we develop, we still need to experience protection from others throughout our lives.
  • The need to protect ourselves. We need to become capable of this and learn to surround ourselves by physical and social protection as much as we can, seeking community, seeking tools, and building shelter.
  • The need to protect others. We have a need to care for things, to step in and help and to preserve life. Sometimes this need in us is over-ridden in our upbringing or environment it seems, but it is present in humanity almost universally. Some people are drawn to protecting animals and plants more than other humans.

Babies cry when they cannot feel or see you because they need you to survive. Toddlers are always on higher alert so they will check you are there by seeking attention in ways that are sometimes unhelpful. Children of all ages need to feel that the space they are in and the people they are with are safe. They also need to trust in your responses, trust in reasonable and sensible limits and trust you to respond.

Children who do not feel safe are more likely to be clingy, or to hide away, additionally, they may whinge or cry if they do not get the attention they need to feel safe. Children with no perceivable boundaries or limits will potentially push those boundaries until they find them, and will feel unprotected and therefore unloved in the future.

How dysregulation is experienced in the child (consciously or subconsciously)
  • I don’t feel safe here
  • There is no one here to protect me
  • The safe people are not here
  • This place scares me
  • This person makes me feel uncomfortable
  • I don’t know how to keep myself safe in this situation
  • I don’t know what is safe and what is not
  • No one has checked on me for a while
  • I cannot see, smell, hear, feel my care giver
  • I don’t know if this person will keep me safe
  • No one cares enough to stop me hurting myself
  • Why does no one have time to check on me
If my child is behaving in a difficult way, as a parent, I can ask myself:
  • Do they feel unsafe in their environment?
  • Do they feel unsafe with the people around them?
  • Are limits and boundaries in place and reasonably clear?
  • For older children and beyond – do they have something to care for?
human need of predictability

The human need for predictability

People need a sense of knowing what is happening next. This helps us to regulate emotions such as fear and surprise. It is a myth that we need routine in our lives, because routine is a time-based rigid structure that tends to override our autonomy, does not allow for enough novelty, and can prevent us from being flexible enough to regulate emotions. Having a rhythm in your life is a good way to build predictability. Rhythm is less about routine and more like:Usually this happens, then this, then this, OR, when I go here, I can expect this. Building rituals into life can also be useful to increase the predictability and rhythm.

Children are often moved from place to place and have neither control nor knowledge of what is happening to them. They will become unsettled if they cannot predict their lives to some extent. Children also experience distress when they enter situations where the “rules” or boundaries are different from usual or have suddenly changed. They will likely either act wildly to re-find the boundaries, or experience a threat response in these circumstances.

Also problematic are times when we interrupt our child’s natural rhythms by rushing them or by not carefully managing transitions from one thing to another. Children are likely to resist their parents in these circumstances or whinge a lot. They are feeling overwhelmed and surprised, because they could not predict the next thing quickly enough.

How dysregulation is experienced in the child (consciously or subconsciously)
  • I don’t know what’s happening to me
  • I don’t know what to expect
  • Your behaviour was suddenly really different to normal
  • I don’t understand the rules
  • I was expecting something else and this is scary
  • It’s all happening too fast
  • I am not ready for this change
  • I liked things the way they were and I am grieving
  • This normally happens differently to this
If my child is behaving in a difficult way, as a parent, I can ask myself:
  • Are they dealing with an unexpected situation?
  • Are they dealing with a transition from one thing to another?
  • Is there any big change happening in their life?
Connection basic human need

The human need for connection

We are a social species and so connection to other human beings is necessary for us to meet our needs and to ensure our regulation. Connection, unlike love and belonging, includes any human relationship that supports us. For instance, friendships, online communities, family, local communities, professional support and romantic relationships can satisfy the need for connection. Different types of human connection suit different people in different situations

Children lacking connection with their parents are most likely to display the most difficult behaviour. Often disconnection comes alongside many of the other needs because a child that is feeling upset by another issue, if it is in any way created or not resolved by you, adds disconnection.  Disconnection is often exhibited by a range of behaviour, such as; being demanding; whinging; lashing out at parents or other children; destructiveness; and behaviour commonly labelled as “attention-seeking”. Reframing those behaviours as connection-seeking can be helpful. They are sub-consciously seeking what they need by any means possible.Reframing those behaviours as connection-seeking can be helpful. They are sub-consciously seeking what they need by any means possible.

How disregulation is experienced in the child (consciously or subconsciously)
  • I can’t see, hear, feel, smell you
  • You aren’t responding to me
  • We are not communicating reciprocally
  • I haven’t spent enough time with you
  • I don’t have anyone I trust here
  • My friends are not here
  • I cannot relate to what is being asked of me
  • I do not feel part of the group
  • No one likes me/I feel rejected
  • I am alone.
If my child is behaving in a difficult way, as a parent, I can ask myself:
  • Are they feeling disconnected from you?
  • Do they receive the message that your love is unconditional?
  • Are they feeling disconnected from other significant people?
  • Are they missing out on social experiences?
  • Do they feel like part of a group (family, community, friendships)?
  • Are they being pushed into social experiences that don’t work for them?
recognition basic human need

The human need for recognition

Recognition is the fundamental need behind people’s perception of esteem or respect. We need to feel that people accept us for who we are, that we are capable of being a competent human and that we have a role or purpose in our community. We need this recognition of this from both our community and ourselves. It is important not to confuse recognition with praise or reward. Although it is true that receiving feedback from others, or receiving something (money for instance) as recognition for a contribution can be suitable recognition, we must understand that those are just one form of recognition and are often not the most desirable forms. To understand more, read this article I wrote about effective recognition.

Children who do not feel recognised for their contribution, understood, nor accepted as they are, are likely to lack confidence and experience anxiety in regard to their competence. They may be hyper sensitive to any rejection of their personality traits. You may hear them saying things such as that life is unfair, that you do not understand them, or that no one likes them. Younger children may constantly ask for your opinion, show you things they have done, repeatedly, and similarly will be less likely to try to do normal tasks independently.  Conversely, some children will not shy away anxiously. They will seek recognition in any form and therefore often display extremely extroverted or provocative behaviour. This could be positive or negative; constantly “performing”, or, on the other hand, making inappropriate comments in public.

How dysregulation is experienced in the child (consciously or subconsciously)
  • People expect too much of me.
  • People do not understand me. 
  • No one can see that I am struggling.
  • I am not good at anything. 
  • I have no role in this group.
  • No one thinks I can do this.
  • No one likes who I am.
If my child is behaving in a difficult way, as a parent, I can ask myself:
  • Do they receive messages that their personality and needs are accepted?
  • Are your expectations of them correct and individual?
  • Do they get recognition (not reward or praise) for their contributions?
  • Do they get opportunities to contribute?
basic human need autonomy

The human need for autonomy

Even though we need to feel connected to others and to belong in a community, we also need to feel distinct from others around us, and to self-direct our actions. Having personal freedom and choice prevents communities from being cults (not healthy for our needs). We need to make our own choices and follow our own paths, and be capable of managing things ourselves. Humans can only be autonomous if we are competent and self-determined; and if that competence and self determination is acknowledged so we have the freedom to exercise it. Putting things in place to allow less able humans (through development, ability, infirmity etc) to self-determine, as far as possible, provides them with autonomy and therefore meets a fundamental need. Another fundamentally important part of autonomy is consent. Humans need to have authority over what happens to them, especially when it comes to their body.

This is usually a big factor in children’s behaviour, particularly in younger children. This is because we have a tendency to overly control toddler’s lives to feel confident in their safety, and because it make our lives more convenient. A child who does not have enough control over their own lives will take it back in any way they can. For example, they may become defiant, avoid demands, or impose control over one or more of the three key areas in which parents cannot exert control: sleep, eating and toileting. 

How dysregulation is experienced in the child (consciously or subconsciously)
  • I have no control in this environment.
  • I never get to choose what happens to me. 
  • People are overriding my consent. 
  • People tell me what to do all the time.
  • I don’t have access to the things I need to be independent.
  • No one lets me do things for myself.
  • I feel trapped.
If my child is behaving in a difficult way, as a parent, I can ask myself:
  • Do they have enough control?
  • Do they have enough choice?
  • Is their environment providing them the chance to be self-sufficient where possible?
  • Am I allowing them to feel capable?
  • Am I, or others, over-riding their consent?
  • Do they have enough freedom in how they play?
novelty basic human need

The human need for novelty

If humans did not have a need for novelty then we would never have advanced in the way that we have. We would be in our caves and we would never have looked over the horizon and wondered, and then gone exploring. We wouldn’t have created machines, gone into space, created mobile phones nor spread across the world. I mean, that might be better, but it is in our nature. We can get ourselves very regulated and comfortable with all of the above in our lives, but then we will inevitably want to change something, want to do something new, find something or create something.

Children are natural explorers and “little scientists”. Their developing brains crave new experiences, problem solving and discovery. It is pretty difficult to restrain a child from this exploration, but it is possible to limit the possibilities and restrict their potential for experiencing novelty in the way they need to, by failing to provide varied opportunities, and failure to allow our children enough freedom to experience acceptable risk. When we restrict (usually inadvertently) our child’s novelty experiences, we will find that our children do it anyway, and often in ways we don’t like.

Young children tend to explore by developing “schemas”, and this can look like hitting, throwing, mark making, and many other things that are really positive skills learning, but can also look like challenging behaviour, especially if they are hitting us or their siblings, throwing our phone or drawing on Granny’s walls.

How dysregulation is experienced in the child (consciously or subconsciously)
  • I need to explore.
  • I need to try things out.
  • This is boring.
  • I need some variation in my life.
If my child is behaving in a difficult way, as a parent, I can ask myself:
  • Are they simply exploring?
  • Do they need a new experience?
  • Do they need some variety?
  • Am I being flexible enough?
  • Do they have opportunity to take acceptable risks?
  • Are they trying to learn something?
  • Do I allow them to learn things when they are ready?
  • Do they see me trying things out and doing different things?

A spectrum of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the best known models of human needs. However, one thing that has become clear, is that the hierarchy system, whilst sometimes helpful, does not always apply.  It does not allow for the variation in human priorities, nor in their behaviour. The hierarchy is most useful when looking at someone’s human needs in the moment. If you are not feeling regulated and safe, you probably won’t be so concerned with discovering new lands. However, all of the things that are higher on Maslow’s triangle do contribute to the regulation of our emotions, our ability to regulate our senses, our physical needs and how able we are to manage our thoughts. Predictability directly impacts how safe we feel, and so does maintaining our autonomy. Being recognised supports good human connection and both allow us to explore. It is complex.

The strongest argument against the hierarchy is that humans fundamentally don’t behave according to those rules in the long term. Firstly, an Olympic athlete retains an ongoing need to meet their physiological needs, even though they have reached their ultimate goals. Secondly, people stay in dangerous places, and situations just because that is where they belong, where family is, or where they are needed. For instance, some families prefer to stay together in a town under bombardment, than to separate According to Maslow’s theory, they would put their need for safety first and so leave.

A non hierarchical representation of human needs

None of these needs operate in isolation and different needs will be more prominent than others, either at different times in our lives, on different days, or in different situations on the same day. Equally, our own personal neurology and personality impacts how intensely we experience these need. In my opinion, human needs would be best represented most often as a spectrum. A useful representation might be a circle with spokes like a wheel. 

human needs spectrum
Thinking about your own needs

You can also use this to visually map out your needs, and check how regulated you are. For instance you can number each spoke from one to five and mark how high your need is, creating a concept map of your needs. Remember this is a snapshot. You can even adjust the distribution of the spokes, in so doing making a bigger area of need for those needs are more prominent for that person.

For parents: 20 questions to ask yourself when you're struggling?
  1. Have I remembered to meet my physical needs?
  2. If I am pregnant, injured or sick, have I remembered I need to give myself a break, because my regulation needs are exceptionally high?
  3. Is the environment I am in upsetting any of my senses?
  4. Can I do something in order to soothe my senses, like move, use fiddle objects, wrap myself in a blanket, take a bath?
  5. Am I trying to deal with unprocessed emotions? (recent or long-term)
  6. Do I need human touch?
  7. Am I struggling to manage how much thinking I need to do?
  8. Do I feel unsafe or unprotected?
  9. Am I struggling with how much I need to organise and remember?
  10. Am I getting enough down time?
  11. Do I feel like I cannot protect myself or my family?
  12. Is this situation new, unexpected, or happening too fast?
  13. Am I feeling disconnected from my child or another relationship?
  14. Do I feel rejected or ashamed?
  15. Am I lacking community and friendship?
  16. Do I, or do others, expect too much of me?
  17. Do I feel like no one sees me as I am, and my struggles?
  18. Am I trying to learn something new?
  19. Do I feel like I have enough control and choice in my life?
  20. Do I need some change, variation, time for my own play?
Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Being a parent, Neurology, Psychology, Science, Self-regulation, Understanding teens
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  1. This is a great piece of inspired writing. Have you sent this to some of the national magazines? It should be required reading for all parents, pediatricians and caregivers… teachers.. therapists.. So many disciplines get locked into a singular focus when we are all multifaceted, complex energetic beings. Thank you for this.

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