I just re-read A General Theory of Love, a book about the origin and powerof love–and in fact a book grounded in hard science. The book was written by three psychiatrists–Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon–and it argues that we learn to love, starting perhaps even before birth with the sound of our mother’s voice, and that our physiological health demands that we continue to make relatedness and connection central, lest we risk unfulfilled lives or even early death.
The authors’ theory goes like this:
*The human brain is composed of three parts: reptilian, limbic, and neocortical. The reptilian brain houses the survival centers: breath, heartbeat, swallowing, etc.; the limbic brain is the seat of the emotions; the neocortex handles functions like speaking, reasoning, writing, and planning.
*Through limbic resonance, a mutually responsive emotional exchange, we develop our social sense–i.e., learn to love and to connect. This exchange happens first and most significantly with the mother. Without it, physiological systems fail, and the child dies (the syndrome known as “failure to thrive.”)
*Even with the best parentling, children never develop a completely self-tuning physiology: we are social animals, and we continue to need the emotional regulation that we receive through emotional exchange in intimate relationships. “Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying with them.”
*As children mature, they extract knowledge about human behavior through implicit memory, which is not subject to reason and is not part of the conscious mind. Individuals who have poor or erratic parenting find themselves drawn to people who replicate the negative patterns of behavior they learned in their family of origin.
*Limbic revision is possible, but is not an easy task–it is a remodeling of the emotional, or limbic, pathways in the brain. In therapy, limbic revision does not come through insight, for emotional familiarity exercises a stronger pull than reason. Rather, it comes through a healthy, loving and extended relationship with the therapist. It can also be facilitated through close relationships with people who know how to love well.
*The authors warn against the intense use of “electronic stewards” for our children: television, videos, computer games. These cannot substitute for face-to-face emotional exchange. Anxiety and depression are the consequences of ignoring limbic needs, and these are epidemic in the U.S. today.
A General Theory of Love is profoundly counter-cultural in several ways:
–It calls into question the American ideals of individualism and independence: human beings are ever and always interdependent, regulating one another emotionally–loving one another into life and health.
–It questions a mental health system which depends so heavily on medication. Medication can be useful, but cannot provide limbic revision. It questions an insurance system that provides so little coverage for mental health. It questions the efficacy of “insight therapy.”
–It questions a social policy that asks single mothers to “get a real job” rather than raise their children–and indeed, a society that is generally unsupportive of women who choose to work in the home.
–It questions our growing substitution of electronics for actual human contact.
–It questions our culture’s pursuit of consumer goods rather than relationships, calling modern American culture “an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most.”
–It questions a corporate culture that asks workers to pour their hearts into a job, when the corporation itself has no attachment inclinations such as loyalty, concern, affection.
–It questions our cultural attitude that relationships don’t need much time and attention–that there can be an “efficiency” in relationships, as with the other areas of our living.
A General Theory of Love is not a self-help book–it aims to change consciousness, not just pose ideas. And when such a shift occurs, we can’t ever see the world again in exactly the same way. We stop, we sense an internal shift, we change. In an anti-life culture, this book is one of those rare ones that help us choose life.