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The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 89-91 ( 10 March )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/leo.html
A General Theory of Love
by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and
Vintage Books, 2001
Reviewed by Lynn E. O’Connor, The Wright Institute, Berkeley, California, USA.
A General Theory of Love, by three long-time collaborating psychiatrists, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, is a compelling and timely discussion not only of love between lovers, but love between parents and children, therapists and patients. It contains the heart of what therapists are doing in psychotherapy, regardless of what we think we are doing. Therapists from contemporary, “relational” persuasions concern themselves with the patient’s unconscious interacting with the therapist’s unconscious. In A General Theory of Love, Lewis et al. demystify this phenomenon; they describe the patient's limbic system connecting to the therapist’s limbic system, its that part of the unconscious mind interacting. The authors, in their discussion of the limbic system, the center of the emotions, and the unconscious mind make clear that they are not referring to the Freudian unconscious, that maladaptive “cauldron” of aggressive and sexual impulses. Nor do they give credence to the Freudian theory of personality development, psychopathology or psychotherapy. Instead they are speaking of the highly adaptive and prosocial cognitive unconscious, including both the cortex and limbic system, both of which are interacting in therapy and all other intense human relationships, and most centrally in mothers and children.
Lewis et al. take their readers through some of what falls in the realm of cognitive science, including implicit and explicit memory, learning, problem solving, all against this steady beat of the centrality of the limbic system. The authors begin by explaining the bald fact that infants are born with their limbic systems "open" and unregulated, and they need their mothers' absolute closeness to slowly, over time, get regulated. They make clear that this is a two-way thing, the mother also needs the limbic connection with her baby, in order to be limbically regulated. And they go way beyond infant regulation, Lewis et al. carefully describe how homo sapiens is never capable of self-regulation, we are in a sense, forever wired with an "open loop" limbic system, that requires a limbic connection with another, to be successfully regulated. In support of their theory they discuss what happens to babies deprived of a limbic connection; if the deprivation is total the babies die. In addition they describe the devastating effects of social isolation on adults. Ostracism and isolation from the community is the worst kind of punishment.
The authors further support their theory with the well-known Harlow isolated monkey experiments. Harlow’s monkeys, deprived of maternal and sibling contact, grow up to be highly aberrant, unable to function in normal monkey society, and unable to reproduce or parent. While they don’t discuss McGuire’s work on regulation/deregulation in vervet monkeys and people, McGuire also linked this to psychotherapy. However, he missed the limbic connection, the love connection. In addition the authors link anxiety-producing experiences in mothers to limbic disturbances in children. They describe a series of experiments in which pregnant rhesus monkeys are made anxious -limbically deregulated-by having their food hidden, and being unsure if they will find it. The studies found negative effects on both born and unborn children, which followed them into adulthood. In fact this research demonstrated that the unborn infants of the anxious mothers had abnormal reactions to psychotropic agents many years later.
In A General Theory of Love, the authors introduce us to the importance of attractors, that is patterns that are more or less imprinted on the limbic system, from infant and childhood limbic connections. Less than optimal limbic connecting, in whatever manner it fails to do the job, tends to get repeated throughout life, in terms of choice of love partners and other close relationships. Thus, explain the authors, people who have experienced dysfunctional parents, tend to select and continue to select partners that essentially match the parents in some limbic way and that in the end are not good for them. Psychotherapy, when it works, helps to change the limbic pattern just enough to allow the person to begin to select more comfort-inducing partners (and friends).
There is something in A General Theory of Love for therapists who work from a more cognitive perspective; irrational or pathogenic beliefs and underlying schema have a limbic system component. To change beliefs, the patient has to connect to the therapist, and the therapist to be limbically connected to the patient. A recent study by Nnamdi Pole at University of Michigan, demonstrated the effects of a therapist’s helpful cognitive interventions on a patient’s physiology, using measures of heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance. In one video-recorded session, the therapist suggests that the patient is worried about being better off than her husband, and is thus afraid of being competent. The patient responds by becoming still, her heart rate drops dramatically, and then she tells with great emotion, the story of what it was like to be at her mother’s death bed and how she had wished she would be “emaciated like my mother, I wish I could be like my mother.” She had linked through a split second non-conscious process, her concern about being better off than her husband to her survivor guilt towards her mother. Lewis et. al would no doubt see this as a limbically driven process and they’d be right. A therapist working on an overtly cognitive level may be able to connect with a highly charged and limbically modulated moment in the patient’s life. There is something in this book for everyone.
Towards the end of the book the authors discuss the very sad implications of contemporary social organization on the need for limbic connection. While it is especially devastating for infants and children to be deprived of limbic connection, as the result of socioeconomic conditions in our culture, it is also adults who are necessarily deprived of what we homo sapiens, as mammals, need in order to feel comfortable. We are never able to be "independent", we are not wired that way, we have a permanent need for limbic connection with others. I think many schools of psychotherapy are moving in the direction of acknowledging the centrality of connection or relationship, but as a society, and that includes the global society, we are in trouble. Not only is contemporary social organization related to an economic non-sustainability, but it makes it really hard to get and maintain the limbic connections we need so desperately.
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The author’s emphasis on the centrality of a mother and infant limbic connection might be questioned by some of Sarah Hrdy’s research in Mother Nature. Hrdy describes the tradition in higher primates and humans of having "alloparents," that is other helpers who are closely related to the children, in response to the very long and intense period of childhood, in which so much is demanded of the mother. Hrdy admits to having struggled herself with the conflict between her career and the needs of her children, and went out to research how this is dealt with in other cultures and in other primate societies. She found that mothers always had to be "careerist" in a manner of speaking, in order for their children to have reasonable "ranking" in the social order. She suggests that mothers in our species have always needed the help of alloparents. I think Lewis et al. may not have covered the terrain in this respect. In a study conducted in Hawaii, children raised in highly deprived conditions were found to develop resilience if they had one person who was tuned in and connected to them, outside of their dysfunctional family. This would support Hrdy’s hypothesis, and suggest that its not just mother with whom children form life-giving limbic connections. In addition, there was not quite enough focus on the effects of the social structure around mothers (for example support from fathers, and others in the community), in terms of limbic regulation, and what is needed for mothers to provide the optimal limbic connection with their babies and children.
The authors may be overly pessimistic about our future; a remarkable feature of the primate brain is its flexibility and plasticity, which made possible the adaptability of our species. This feature combined with our rather fantastic cortical potential, made it possible for us to survive in almost any environmental conditions. We changed through culture and social structure, to adapt to the many new settings that nature brought us. Toward the end of the book I found myself thinking that the authors might be missing that even in our profoundly pathogenic socioeconomic and cultural conditions, many find a way to have the limbic connections they need. In fact the rise of the use of psychotherapy is no doubt one cultural adaptation to the need for limbic connection. Contemporary movies and television make clear how much therapists have become part of our intimate lives. Today in urban middle class settings, it is commonplace to find that women gathering to gossip talk as much about their therapists as their significant others.
Additionally, I wondered if the authors’ own sociocultural history might be limiting their perspective on limbic connection. Second only to the mother and child connection, they focus on the adult marital or partner bond. It may be that we have far more limbic connections going all the time than is suggested. In recent research on women's use of one another to reduce stress and in reaction to external difficulties, it is demonstrated that this leads to less stress hormones than are found in men in reaction to for example, job stressors. While men tend to withdraw, isolate and suffer from a surge of stress hormones, women congregate and bond. It is suggested that this may lead to longer lives, as well as to more immediate comfort to say nothing of less stress related neurochemistry. I would imagine that in some cultures in which romantic love is not what brings people together in the marriage union, and where strong attachments are to more than a marriage partner, the need for limbic attachment is still being tended to. I'm suggesting that love exists in a myriad of human relationships. While our culture may be sick in its denigration of limbic attachment between for example, female platonic friends, or men who like to talk about feelings with their buddies, nevertheless many women and men find ways to get around this, or simply ignore it. This is a must read for everyone, and for those therapists who have questioned what psychological science has to do with psychotherapy and other meaningful relationships, I think they will find an answer in A General Theory of Love.
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© Lynn E. O’Connor.
O’Connor, L. E. (2002). Review of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. Human Nature Review. 2: 89-91.