Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — A General Theory of Love

When I first wrote about the book, A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, I said that it was an important book in the category of general psychology and human development.  While my comments for this post reprise some of my earlier observations, I think it is worthwhile to reprise and expand upon them.

Human psychology and social psychology have been ripe with pseudo-scientific methods and explanations.  In many cases ideology and just plain societal prejudice has also played a role.   In this work the authors effectively eviscerate the pre-scientific approach to understanding human behavior and mental health. They posit that an understanding of the physical structure of the brain, and the relationship and interplay of the environment to it, is necessary in understanding the manifestation of behaviors found in our species. In outlining the science of the brain’s structure, the authors effectively undermine the approach that the human mind and our emotional lives are self-contained.

According to Thomas Lewis, “the book describes the nature of 3 fundamental neurophysiologic processes that create and govern love: limbic resonance, the wordless and nearly instantaneous emotional attunement that allows us to sense each other’s feeling states; limbic regulation, the modulation and control of our physiology by our relationships; and limbic revision, the manner in which relationships alter the very structure of our brains. those whom we love, as our book describes, change who we are, and who we can become.”

This concept is not without its own limitations.  In the book the authors discuss the concept of the triune brain, that is, the portions of the brain that are derived from our evolutionary ancestors from our reptilian complex, through the limbic system (paleo-mammalian), and ending with the neo-cortex (neo-mammalian).  This model is an effective one for generalization, but it has not been completely accepted in neuroscience as an accurate model. Also, the identification of what constitutes the limbus is a shifting science, as is the evolutionary theory of the brain.  But one would expect such contingency in a scientific field only now garnering results.  What this shows is that we have been amazingly ignorant of the most important part of our anatomy that explains what we are, how our personalities and emotional lives are formed, and how those needs create the society in which we live.

Rather than individuals which are disconnected from those around us, what the book demonstrates is that the present state of psychiatry and neuroscience clearly shows that we are indelibly connected to those around us.  This not only includes family, but also our environments (both neo- and post-natal), and society.  Given that we are in the midst of a new renaissance in the sciences, the ambition of a “general theory” is a bit premature.

But what the authors have done is provide a strong hypothesis that is proving itself out in experimental and evolutionary biology and neuroscience: that we are social animals, that we have a strong and essential need for love and support early in our development, that our relationships and environment mold the structures of the brain, that emotional regulation is important throughout our lives, and that we are connected to each other in both intuitive and overt ways that make us what we are individually and societally.

They also provide, knowing the psychological needs of human flourishing, that the materialism and dispersion of modern society has contributed to the pathology and neuroses we see today: anxiety, depression, and narcissism, among others.  That this understanding is not academic–that understanding and applying this knowledge in solving human problems is also existential–is the challenge of our own time.

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