Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

Aligning, integrating and applying the behavioural sciences

How the Brain develops the Mind

with minor editing by
Chris Cowan

This feature was originally published on the old Humberside Partnership Connexions web site in June 2001.

Developed by Don Beck & Chris Cowan (1996) from the ground-breaking work of Clare W Graves (1970) and integrating Richard Dawkins’ (1976) concept of ‘memes’, Spiral Dynamics expands exponentially Abraham Maslow’s (1943) human motivation model, Hierarchy of Needs. It is the most advanced of the ‘Levels of Existence’ theories – yet, at the same time, its ‘map’ of human motivation is very easy to use.

The biggest field trial of Spiral Dynamics to date was in South Africa in the early-mid 1990s when Don Beck used it to help Nelson Mandela and F W DeKlerk design the transition from Apartheid to multi-cultural democracy. However, it has also influenced the Community Policing Policy of Victoria, New South Wales, been championed as a means of investigating new strands of racism on the Atlantic Seaboard and more recently has been taken up by Dutch Traffic Planners(!).

The work of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) psychologist Robert Dilts (1990) on Neurological Levels provides a useful frame for understanding Spiral Dynamics. Dilts identifies that the mind orders its perceptions of the world at 5 levels….

  • Identity – Who I am? – eg: son/daughter, student, responsible citizen, burglar, drug-dealer, thief, gang member…
  • Values & Beliefs – What’s important to me? – eg, honesty, being powerful, being accepted – and what beliefs do I have around those values – eg, honest people tell the truth no matter what, being powerful needs other people to recognise my power, being accepted means fitting in with ‘X’ Group’s activities…
  • Skills & Knowledge – What capabilities do I need?
  • Behaviour – to carry out appropriate behaviour
  • Environment (Life Conditions) – in this context

Spiral Dynamics concerns the relationship between Identity/Values & Beliefs (internal) and the (perceived) Life Conditions (what’s going on) in the Environment (external).

The model identifies 8* core ways of thinking – coping mechanisms, worldviews or, in the vernacular, Value Systems or Value MEMES (vMEMES) – which develop in a hierarchical fashion in response to changing Life Conditions. (*A ninth way of thinking is thought to be emergent – the model is theoretically open-ended as the brain’s capability to devise new ways of coping is said to be limitless.)

A basic overview of the model is as follows:-

The pairing of letters – eg, B-O – represents the double helix nature of the Spiral where B is the (perceived) Environment (Life Conditions) and O is the neurologically-activated coping mechanism developed by the brain in response to that perception.

The full Gravesian model, including transitional states and the hypothetical 9th level – ‘Spiral Balloon’ copyright © 1996 NVC Inc

The vMEMES are depicted here in peak form. However, Spiral Dynamics provides two transition points between each peak vMEME – eg, PURPLE/red (B-O/c-p) and (purple/RED) b-o/C-P – an entering and an exiting phase – as one coping mechanism fades in a given context and the next one emerges.

This assumes, of course, that the latent neurological networks in the brain are in sufficiently healthy condition for the next vMEME to emerge.

Transition can take considerable time – or it can happen very quickly – so quickly the change can almost appear instantaneous. In very extreme cases, it has even been known for people to take a ‘Quantum Leap’ up several vMEMES almost at once!

Spiral Dynamics in a young person’s development

  • BEIGE  baby on the breast, needing mother’s milk and warmth – physical/biological needs in an almost pre-cognitive state.
  • PURPLE – now the nuclear family unit – or whatever passes for an alternative – is everything to the child. The sense of belonging, of being safe in the ‘tribe’. Mum and Dad, guardian or other major adult figure(s) need(s) to be the mystical, shamanic figure(s) able to intercede between the child and the mysterious threatening world he/she doesn’t understand.
    If there isn’t a magical adult figure to carry out the shaman role – or the safety of the family ‘tribe’ is otherwise threatened or undermined – then expect trouble. If the key building block of Spiral development is unhealthy/flawed, then that person’s development is likely to be skewiff.
    With the lack of safety/security – PURPLE’s key motivator – then RED may well come onstream too early –- ie, out of line with normal biological development – in a decidedly unhealthy version, full of aggression and determined to dominate. (The nightmare scenario in so many primary Key Stage 2 classrooms!)
    Healthy PURPLE will contribute significantly to mental and emotional stability right throughout life.
  • RED emerges in a normal, healthy individual around about the onset of puberty and is displayed in the typical teenager’s breaking away from/rejection of the family ‘tribe’ in an effort to find his/her own voice – ‘me’. (Or even, ‘me! me! me! me!’) (Healthy role models help here!)
    The emphasis now is on doing what pleases, satisfies, gratifies – right NOW! So teenagers, with little sense of time and even less sense of consequences will go on drinking binges, take highly-dangerous/addictive drugs and have unprotected sex with complete strangers – with no thought of the morning after.
    It’s a highly-competitive and combative world – and sometimes a very dangerous one. Those who are the strongest, the most powerful, the most daring, the sexiest, the richest, etc, etc, are the ones who dominate.
    And peak RED only backs down when it recognises an at-least equal power. (A real problem for School Rules BLUE when it’s been emasculated by GREEN’S Human Rights restrictions!)
    Of course, the positive side of this is the teenager’s sheer energy, boundless imagination and relentless curiosity. And, as the saying goes…If you don’t have RED at a party, you’ve really just got a meeting!
  • BLUE brings order when RED burns out or otherwise exhausts itself – or it may even be that great PURPLE/red state of falling in love which leads the young people to demand fidelity and responsibility of each other. “We’ve got a relationship now. You can’t go off sleeping with whoever you like and staying out drinking and drugging all night!” is the natural harbinger of the coming of rules and regulations.
    BLUE is the natural learning environment in academically-orientated schools, with its emphasis on structured, sequential learning systems. This vMEME, with its protective laws and predictable systems, also provides a harmonic of safety for PURPLE.
    However, don’t expect much imagination, innovation or creativity from BLUE. It’s far too busy conforming and enforcing conformity, for change beyond altering the railway lines its thinking runs on.
    This way of thinking requires direction and strict guidance in the prescribed way from the legitimate higher authority.
  • ORANGE emerges as the individual shakes off some of BLUE’S stifling rigid conformity to progress that person in the direction of some future goal. The motif for full-blown ORANGE is self-directed striving and the measurement of progress by whatever status markers are deemed appropriate – money, good clothes, fashionable holidays abroad in ‘in’ resorts, the right kind of friends, etc, etc.
    The directive teaching required by BLUE is merely a resource to be used by ORANGE and then dropped when a better means of progress is identified.
    Thinking from the Government’s Educational think tanks over the past 10 or so years has assumed an ORANGE/blue state of self-motivated-but-thorough-and-consistent learning style as the natural state of schools aiming for their 5 A*-C GCSE targets.
    Yet, many headteachers observe PURPLE in tatters, BLUE powerless and RED running amok in their schools. Their chances of reaching targets are going to be limited until Maslow’s basic principle is recognised: people cannot progress to a higher level until the present and lower levels are stabilised.
  • GREEN is often talked about by young people in their mid-to-late teens as they start to become energised by concerns for the environment, animal welfare, natural ecologies, human rights, etc, etc.
    In many cases, though, this will be RED borrowing GREEN concepts and language for some fun! (Nothing like razzing the cops on a demo or deploring the ORANGE capitalist system beloved of so many parents, to whom it may well pay handsome wages!)
    If GREEN does emerge full bore during the late teens, then the most likely expression is a turning away from – or, at least, a lessening of – the drive for academic achievement or material progression (good job/house/car/upwardly-mobile partner).
    Giving it all up to do Voluntary Service Overseas or joining a New Age travelling commune may seem a much more attractive proposition!

How vMEMES learn

  •  Through imitation and repetition
  • Animistic analogies – fairy-tales, cartoons and animal metaphors
  • Chants, dances, rhythm music, rituals
  • Practical kinaesthetics
  • Learning what the Tribe learns is a major driver

The relationship with the ‘teacher’ is critical – that person must be a mystical, shamanistic figure.

PURPLERED transition
Learning by modelling is still important – but satisfaction of the embryonic ego will also influence what is learned


  • Instant results – pain or punishment
  • No threats – only promises of certain outcomes
  • Hands-on action learning – the opportunity to experience it for themselves
  • What is learned needs to be immediately relevant to the circumstances the individual perceives him/herself to be in

Respect for the ‘teacher’ as a hero figure is important – but the teacher must also show respect back to the blossoming egos.

REDBLUE  transition
What pleases (or is immediately relevant) is still central but there is also some desire now to know what the procedures for learning are – and that leads to WHAT should be learned.


  • Acceptance of Truth from the Higher Authority
  • Prescriptive teaching/learning – following set procedures
  • Right/wrong feedback – testing on the learning

The work set will be done because it is ‘the correct thing to do’ – but don’t expect imagination in the work or more than is set!

BLUEORANGE transition
Self-motivation starts to emerge – though learning procedures are still necessary.


  • Developing future sense with possibilities of multiple outcomes
  • Trial-and-error experiments to achieve anticipated outcomes
  • Opportunities to analyse and improve – particularly via technology
  • Complete self-motivation to achieve the desired future outcome(s)

The ‘teacher’ is now a resource to be used.

ORANGEGREEN transition
Broader concerns now start to emerge and there is a need to make sure everybody is getting opportunities.


  • Bigger picture thinking and emotional responsiveness
  • What is important can be subject to consensus
  • Learning from peers/group learning
  • Personal development/development of self – within the group

The ‘teacher’s’ job is to facilitate the development of the group and individuals within the group.


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