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Should people really pursue self-actualization?
It's a popular buzzword among the self-help community, but does trying to become self-actualized do any good?
- Abraham Maslow first came up with the hierarchy of needs many decades ago.
- At the top of this hierarchy was the idea of self-actualization, a human need to become all that we can possibly be.
- It's struck a chord outside of academic circles, but both pursuing this goal and the concept itself are a little problematic.
It's a staple of pop psychology. Most are, by now, familiar with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The model describes 5 varieties of needs, each of which must be satisfied before one can move up to the next level of the pyramid. At the very bottom, there are physiological needs like the need for food, water, and sleep. If you haven't got enough food, for example, it's very unlikely that you'll feel motivated to pursue the needs at the next level of the pyramid, which are safety needs. These include feeling financially secure, safe from harm, and being healthy. The next level focuses on the need to feel social belonging, such as feeling loved and having friendships. Then there are the esteem needs, such as a sense of mastery and competence. And finally, there's the summit of the pyramid, the ultimate goal of self-actualization.
The model makes intuitive sense, and it gives us the impression that so long as we work hard, we can make inexorable progress to the top of the pyramid. It's grown so popular that unlike most academic theories, it's broken out of the ivory tower and has gained new life among wellness blogs and motivational speakers. But Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the idea of self-actualization in particular have some serious flaws. In fact, our dogged pursuit to become the best version of ourselves and live our best lives might be doing more harm than good.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Flickr user BetterWorks Breakroom
Maslow's work was revolutionary in the sense that prior to his hierarchical theory of human motivation, most psychology only sought to explain disorders — the ways in which human beings deviate from "normal." The trouble is, nobody knew exactly what a "normal" human was. Maslow's hierarchy of needs landed him in the growing field of humanistic psychology, which seeks to explain human nature holistically.
But Maslow's hierarchical model represents just the first few steps into a developing field, not a definitive picture of human nature. As Maslow's model spread outside of the realm of the academic, it took on more of an air of something obviously and inherently true, a roadmap to becoming a complete and happy human being. But Maslow never intended the hierarchy of needs to be a prescriptive model. It doesn't tell you what you should be doing. Instead, it's a descriptive model; it tells you the way things are under certain conditions. Striving for self-actualization rather than allowing for the need to self-actualize arise naturally might actually do more harm than good.
For starters, people don't exactly know what self-actualization means. In "A Theory of Human Motivation," one of the earliest works to describe this model, Maslow described self-actualization as
"[…] the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for [an individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming."
The key here is that self-actualization is a fulfillment of what one is actually capable of becoming — not what one wants to become. This misconception becomes tricky when we think of self-actualization as a goal in and of itself. Rather than pursuing the natural, innate motivations that would lead to self-actualization, sometimes we pursue the concept of self-actualization itself. More often than not, this leads down a futile path of struggling to become a person we're not, of transforming our real selves into an illusory self-image. This quickly turns into a pursuit of perfection, which works against self-actualization. Perfectionism has been linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. In his later work, "Critique of Self-Actualization Theory," Maslow wrote:
"In a word, when life is judged as not worthwhile — whether through the accumulation of pains or the absence of peak-experiences and positive joys — then humanistic psychology is worthless. It speaks only to those people who want to live, grow, become happier and more effective, fulfill themselves, like themselves better, improve in general, and move toward the ideal of perfection, even though they never expect fully to reach that point."
Does self-actualization even capture the big picture?
In addition to misunderstanding Maslow's description of self-actualization, we should also be aware that the concept itself has some major flaws. For starters, Maslow's picture of self-actualization is an awfully subjective one. In his book, Motivation and Personality, Maslow describes the qualities of self-actualized people as being realistic, accepting of the self and others, possessing a sense of autonomy, having a focus on completing tasks or fixing problems, possessing a constantly renewed perspective of the world, having few but close friends, being comfortable with solitude, and self-reliance, among others.
These sound like good qualities, and probably qualities that any self-actualized person would have, but that's more or less the same amount of academic rigor that Maslow applied when defining a self-actualized person.
Maslow developed this list of qualities by studying the top 1% "healthiest" college students and several historical figures that he believed had been self-actualized. As part of his definition of the healthiest students, he looked for those with an absence of neuroses as well as those whom he thought were good examples of self-actualized individuals. This is, unfortunately, a circular methodology. Maslow was studying living and historical individuals he believed to be self-actualized with the goal of qualifying what self-actualization is.
Between public misunderstandings of the term and its own subjective nature, we have to question whether pop psychology's fascination with self-actualization is a useful one. Yes, it's a concept that makes sense; we all know we can become better, and realizing our potential in a way that strives for perfection without vainly becoming obsessed with it strikes us as behavior that's inherently correct. But self-actualization is merely a description of a phenomenon, and not an entirely accurate description at that. Worrying about what one needs to do to accomplish self-actualization and whether one can become self-actualized is counter-productive.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs was never designed to live outside of the ivory tower of academia. Within that tower, it has been criticized and refined and criticized again, but we don't often receive the benefit of those reviews outside of academia. So, the next time a self-help guru tells you what you need to do to achieve self-actualization, take it with a grain of salt.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>