Where's the Emotion? The Forgotten/Left Out of Biological Basic Needs

kgins's picture

From the very beginning of our academic experiences with biology, we were taught about basic needs. Most textbooks covered these basic needs in a systematic kind of way: they listed, discussed, explained, and moved on. We were tested on them: asked to recite, relay, and paraphrase. After going back, now about 12 or 13 years later, and looking at textbooks and websites, I realized how limiting these basic needs were. The most popular, seemingly most agreed upon basic needs of living organisms, were the needs for food, water, energy, oxygen, living space, and to be able to maintain the conditions inside of oneself, better known as homeostasis (1, 2, 3). While these describe physical necessities, I started to wonder about the importance of another major class- the importance of emotional desires- are these needs? Maybe we can’t measure, to the degree we can the physical, but there appears to be a major lacking in biology in attention to the more mental side of things. Maybe physical necessities keep numbers up and a heart ticking, but aren’t emotional desires a large part of what differentiates organisms? Aren’t our conscious minds- and understanding ourselves- a different, but perhaps just as real need- or desire- worthy of mentioning, even at the most basic biology level? If we’re taught in first or second grade about basic physical necessities- it seems that, in addition to teaching that food and water are necessary, we should be taught about emotions, even to the smallest degree that we could understand at that age.

Psychology has taken up tremendous interest in understanding what goes on inside of our heads- the science of mind or mental states (4). Philosophers examine truth, and the principles of being, knowledge, and conduct (5). But what about biology? Biology is, by definition, the study of life, and living processes (6), so shouldn’t that entail some of these elements of psychology and philosophy? After being taught about biology as such a cardinal subject for many years, it would seem like an awfully large oversight for biologists to leave out mental need/desires from their discuss of “basic needs”, so why then, are those not included? Are they not actually needs? What actually defines a need?

Resorting back to the dictionary, a need is defined as something required (7), while something required is defined as something of need (8). Required for what, or needed for what? For survival? It’s ironic that we develop, that we’re created, from cells from other humans, yet biology refuses to list human contact as a basic need, or something close to it. While there are just over 100 known feral children- children isolated from human contact, who have survived, often raised in the wild by animals (9), it seems greater attention should be paid towards human desire in response to need. Maybe the difference between desire and need is where there’s a problem- maybe what biology textbooks list are things the body needs put into it, so that chemical processes can take place- the bare minimum, for physical survival. However, if biology is the study of life and living processes, human desire- wanting something, desiring some kind of connection, some kind of emotional, seems to be worth discussing. We feel things, and we think things, and a lot of the time, we can’t control either of these. We can control our actions (if one believes in free will), but the rest, we can’t control. It seems worthy of biology addressing- but, maybe, biology leaves it out because we don’t know- because it’s a mystery, something we don’t, nor biologists, understand, and by emitting the emotional desires, the job to list “basic needs” becomes easier. Maybe it’s a cop out- an easier way to touch on a broad subject, and give as simple an answer as possible.

When I was taught about basic needs in second grade, I remember the discussion. I remember looking at the chalkboard, and trying to apply these “needs” to my life, so I could better understand. The need for food, water, air, energy, and a safe home, made sense. Homeostasis was a bit harder to grasp, but it too made sense that our temperature needed to kept at a constant, and that the chemicals in our bodies needed to remain more or less balanced out. It wasn’t difficult to learn, to memorize this list- I’m alive, and knew what my daily activities- drinking, eating, etc., entailed. At such a young age, we were taught these “basic needs”, but not taught much about why they were such basic needs. Maybe our brains wouldn’t have been able to grasp it, but an explanation, even an attempt at one, could have got us thinking more.

Twelve years later, after that initial lesson, it makes little sense to me why nothing mental or emotional was included there. I can appreciate that maybe we couldn’t have understood detailed concepts of brain activity, but I can’t understand why, from a young age, we’re not talk about more perhaps mental, psychology-related material, even on the basic level. My initial attempt at justifying this- at justifying our education, was that if we were taught about more mental, more emotional desires, we’d grow up to think more, perhaps complicate things, and potentially become more (if there is some kind of connection between complicating and neurosis), of a neurotic culture than we already are. But, then the question comes in as to whether it’s better to remain ignorant or bliss, or to be aware, in a more complicated state. As second graders, it would have been interesting to understand why going home and seeing our parents, provided a good living situation, brought us happiness, and understanding a little bit of where our happiness comes from, and the emotions we’re capable of/desire. Maybe that is a little too complicated, but maybe the lack of education here at such a young age isn’t a good thing- maybe we grow up confused and unsure of how we feel sometimes, largely because new strings of foreign emotions develop, and we’ve had education on emotion for a relatively short time, compared to areas such as math and reading. Perhaps we’d become more stable, over time, if we were taught about emotions and mental education from a younger age.

I think the amount of attention paid to physical needs versus emotion feelings, or desire, over time, is interesting. It’s interesting that we’re taught physical necessities, and maybe we’re taught about being happy, or sad, but only just the very basics of each. However, our physical necessities are things that, physically, keep us alive. They’re things we can put into our mouths, things we can measure, and things we all have a common need for. We all have different emotional needs, as I’ve come to think about it. People are happier at different times, to different degrees, and favor different emotions. To me, it seems the emotional side of things is more complicated- more unknown maybe, than the physical. If we were taught about emotions at a younger age, maybe we’d have more time to develop our thoughts on emotions- more time to collaborate, more time to be consciously aware of how we feel and respond. Eventually, maybe we could develop an understanding of- if they exist, the basic emotional needs, and teach that side by side with the physical needs. Little by little, if we were to keep finding out things about ourselves, about our total needs, about the way we work, it seems great advances could be made in figuring out just who we are and what we’re doing.


1. http://www.kidsbiology.com/biology_basics/needs_living_things/homeostasis7.php
2. http://www.libraryvideo.com/guides/N6687.pdf,
3. Biology, Seventh Edition, Campbell & Reece
4. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/psychology
5. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/philosophy
6. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/biology
7. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/need
8. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/require
9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child


Ron C. de Weijze's picture

The emotional world of biology

Hello Karen, perhaps I can bend your argument a little, hopefully into a direction you won't mind too much. I do so as a social psychologist, who is supposed to know a thing or two about emotions, human relations etc. The basics of psychology, well to most of us at least I guess, are from the realm we would call biology: active and passive conditioning of reflexes. The biological needs that you were mentioning, are considered to be the reinforcers of behavior, when they are satisfied or frustrated (punishment and reward). Ever since those first grade lessons of psychology I have come to see more and more clear, how reducible emotions really are. They seem to represent a lot, very much more than those simple needs such as hunger and thirst, however emotions are, like homeostasis, just telling us that all is well and that it is not so much these emotions themselves that explain all sorts of things but only the system, emotional system if you will, that works or raises a red flag! Good emotions are signalling a system that works flawlessly, while bad emotions draw attentions to obstructions in the mental or even physical flows. Expectations that are not met, goals that were not reached, or... that are! We all have our basic belief systems, be they of a religious kind (e.g. literally called 'precepts' in the Book of Psalms) or not, be they simple or very complex. Each of these 'sets' are mental attitudes that can make us handle reality with ease or not, which in the end will take us down. When we are not sure how to represent reality, social reality in particular(Festinger), then we tend to ask others whom we trust what théy think, because we trust them and therefore trust what they tell us that 'is'. As long as our theories or hypotheses can reflect what is 'out there', they are held to be 'real' and emotions are good, that is regulated. Biologists perhaps would say, as long as the heart keeps pumping, all needs are met. So I hope you see that basic needs can say a lot more than meets the biologist. You probably heard of Maslow's hierarchy?

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