“The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing”.
Imagine a situation where you are caught up in the morning rush hours to your office, and you find a roadway you are blindly accustomed to whizzing past, blocked for road work. Some of us may get agitated and show up in an off-putting mood for work, some mildly annoyed and some might take a deep breath and steer their way into another lane calmly. How we react or respond has less to do with the presenting situation than what our inner landscape is.
This is a review of a book – “A General Theory of Love” authored by three psychiatry professors – Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon – from the University of California, San Fransisco. The captivating book aims to uncover the truth behind Pascal’s famous statement through the knowledge of psychobiology and attachment theory. And illustrates, quite eloquently, the significant ways in which we are wired as humanity, and circuited as individuals. It also brings forth a ponderous point of how collectively we are in danger of losing our center if as a society we overlook the foundation of full-time parenting or fail to recognize the impact of loving relationships; rendering ourselves completely limbically challenged.
One of the vital points of the book is to convey that love or lack of it in our formative years determines who we become. “If someone’s relationships today bear a troubled imprint, they do so because an influential relationship left its mark on a child’s mind”. And “who we are and who we become, depends, in part, whom we love”.
The authors present that we all, without exception, possess the reptilian brain – and not just an inexcusable lawbreaker. This brain which has survived through the timeline of evolution helps us to what else… but survive. Death of the reptilian brain is the final death knell of our lives, if the reptilian brain is the only brain that is alive in us, we would be alive though in the deepest of comas. The reptilian brain does not have a rich emotional landscape – it’s purpose is single pointed survival and territorial defense. And offence too, like some of the surviving giant lizards – Komodos – which attack intruders and eat them, it shows up the same way in our lynching, mob attacks, riots – all dark outcomes of this primitive brain. The book explains the neocortex or the newest brain evolved in size as the mammals evolved. Speaking, writing, planning, reasoning, the experience of our senses, awareness and motor control or will originates here. Even abstraction and language – the grandest gift of this brain – are functions of the neocortex.
The core of the book lies in explaining the function, role and significance of the third brain which is often overlooked. It lies in the center of these two brains. The authors lay out the importance of this brain called the Limbic Brain which drapes the reptilian brain and is under the neocortex. The evolution of the limbic brain marked the shift from “detachment and disinterest” of the reptilian brain to “subtle and elaborate interactions” between the mammals and their young. Mammals care for their own, vocally communicate and play; all of which are the limbic brain’s gift to us. As the authors say “Trouble begins when people are most aware of the verbal, rational part of their brains, they assume that every part of their mind should be amenable to the pressure of argument and will. Not so. Words, good ideas, and logic mean nothing to at least two brains out of three. Much of one’s mind does not take orders”. A person cannot will himself to want the right thing, or love the right person. And it is not that such a person does not have control over himself but because he/she is limiting to just one part of the brain. But we often, as a culture believe that fixing either our will or our thoughts through interventions will fix things externally. As the authors say we believe that “Everything that does not comply must be broken or poorly designed, people now suppose, including their hearts”.
A key concept highlighted by the book is the importance of another important person in one’s life. This is done through the concepts of “open loop” and “closed loop”. This concept is quite compelling and goes hand in hand with the attachment theory of early childhood development. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon say that a child’s physiology being primarily “open loop” acts as a sponge to what goes around with the most important mammal in their lives – their mother. Attachments made during childhood determines the nature of our beings as we grow up into full-blown adulthood. The nurturance received in early childhood stretches onto the future horizon and insulates us. As adults, we possess both self-regulating or “closed loop” somatic systems and “open loop” systems. Amongst other things, these “open loop” systems govern the secretion of serotonin, opiates and oxytocin. This is the outcome of the design of the limbic brain, which hinges on interdependence.
They explain how our implicit memory (some of what we remember can be consciously brought up as “explicit memory” but most of it cannot be retrieved as it is saved as “implicit memory” – in our dual memory system) formed as neural networks were made in childhood, are readily served to us as limbic sensitivity, tangential reminders or dormant moods in which we live, emotions we readily find ourself in or people we gravitate towards. These emotional networks are also updated and revised over a lifetime. “We all embody an emotional force field that acts on the people we love, evoking the relationship attributes we know best. Our minds are in turn pulled by the emotional magnets of those close to us, transforming any landscape we happen to contemplate and painting it with colors and textures they see”. But our childhood has more of an impact on impressionable neural networks than later experiences.
As a therapist, healer or someone who is supporting another through a period of intense change (as a coach like me) limbic resonance and regulation come in as important conduits of taking the person through their transformation. And finally, through a deft revision, a new neural network is formed.
The book makes a good case of why emotions the proverbial elephant in the room we all need to perceive and address, after all, ’emotions reach back 100 million years, while cognition a few hundred thousand years’. As they say “our culture may oppose them at every turn, people can still manage to lead successful lives if they cultivate the connections their limbic brains demand”. There are a lot of case studies, examples and researches through which the authors make their point. But it is quite an adventure to read this book, which is full of poetry along with psychophysiological references but drives the point home very clearly. For those who have a deeper interest in why we humans behave the way, we behave (or don’t) this is a recommended read.
Summed up powerfully the premise of this book, is to ensure we take to our hearts (pun intended) these wise words of Einstein “We should take care not to make intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead; it can only serve”.