A General Theory of Love: a review

Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.   

“People rely on intelligence to solve problems, and they are naturally baffled when comprehension proves impotent to effect emotional change… Ideas bounce like so many peas off the sturdy incomprehension of the limbic and reptilian brains. The dogged implicitness of emotional knowledge, it’s relentless unreasoning force, prevents logic from granting salvation just as it precludes self-help books from helping.” (pg. 118)

The authors, psychiatrists all, dispel the ingrained binary perception of head or heart by beautifully describing the intricate bonds and balances in the different parts of our brains, and the vital dynamics of these parts when communication between people takes place. Coming from three successive generations of psychiatry Lewis, Amini and Lannon have witnessed a massive shift in the fundamental understanding of the human mind: from the pre-scientific Freudian models that permeate our culture, through early pharmacology to the advent of neuroscience, their knowledge of the mind’s labyrinthine structure and function has undergone the same seismic shifts as the profession. The result is a depth of understanding coupled with a profound humility when faced with the vast agencies at play in the brain. Their triune voice negotiates their understanding, and the reader’s growing comprehension, with grace and humour, creating a resonance with the imparted knowledge and wisdom that’s quite startling.

Yet this isn’t a self-help book, more a scientific essay on the brains relation to the heart, A General Theory of Love explores our drive for intimacy and greater connection; the very real formative physical effect love has on the brain’s development in children and the continuing function of those physical structures in our adult brains. Using contemporary research in cognitive science, evolutionary biology and sociology this book illuminates how vital the quixotic interaction of love and biology are in the emergence of our personalities and, further, the relationships we create with them. But the soul of the book lies in the recognised limitations of science and scientific language; the authorial understanding that in order to explore the mental and emotional connections within ourselves, and the connections we form with the hearts and minds of others, they must avail themselves of the vast resources of humanity’s obsession with this love and its mercurial exchanges. Poetry, literature and the physical arts from across the years (these endeavors of so many hearts and minds) are called on and employed alongside science in order to explore the extent and vitality of the mind-heart connection.

Citing the lives and ideas of such luminary figures as Shakespeare, Freud, Darwin and Frost, this book reveals how the compulsion, means and ways we reach out to others demonstrate how our nervous systems are not self-contained structures, how important and defining the interaction between people’s emotions are. “From birth to death, love is not just the focus of human experience but also the life force of the mind, determining our moods, stabilizing our bodily rhythms, and changing the structure of our brains. The body’s physiology ensures that relationships determine and fix our identities. Love makes us who we are, and who we can become.” (from the preface).

Initially we’re introduced to our brains basic structure: the triune brain; consisting of the Neocortex, Limbic and Reptile brains. The evolutionary process of the triune brain’s development is explored, starting with the reptile brain’s autonomic necessity (controlling all those things the rest of our brain can’t be trusted with) and moving onto the limbic brain, the seat of emotion and instinct: fleeing, fighting, feeding, and sexual urges (known as the 4 F’s) before finally delving into our evolutionary masterpiece, the neocortex, responsible for such marvels as reason, speech and taxes. So impressed have we become with the neocortex many now place it, unrivalled, at the top of the mental food-chain, the senior partner, demoting the remaining sections of our brain to mailroom roles. To counter such hierarchal ideas the authors are quick and convincing in illustrating the equitable interrelations of the three parts of our brain and the resultant beauteous dysfunction we’re left with, all sitting atop our necks in such an illusion of good order that it’s hard to see how we screw ourselves up so badly, so regularly.

After a fascinating introduction to these heady matters A General Theory of Love travels further and deeper, on the road of exposition, into how our limbic brains measurably connect with and shape the brains and lives of others, the pure learning forces at play in a child’s growth and development, how memory can store and shape love, and, ultimately, what recognition of love’s ephemeral and physical effects could allow us to accomplish.

We often attempt to live lives dictated by binary relationships: right or wrong, all or nothing, head or heart, but the dichotomization of factors that confound and affect our lives are a rhetorical convenience that belies the hodgepodge nature of the world and our minds. ‘Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.’ There is revelation contained within these pages, an opportunity to look with fresh eyes on the relationships we have built our lives from, how they have hurt us and saved us with their undeniable transformative effect on almost every element of our lives. Jung said that the relationships we build are the masterpieces of our lives; this book does the remarkable in showing us the brushstrokes of those masterpieces, revealing the grammar and syntax of our emotional existence.

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2 responses to “A General Theory of Love: a review

  1. I’m uncomfortable with calling the brainstem the “Reptilian Brain” as it has nothing to do with reptiles. We aren’t descended from them. It only makes sense if we define reptilian as meaning, “most primeval and base”, which is caricature, not science.

    And I’m thinking posterity may decide that our freakishly big brains were an experiment that didn’t work out. Most animals have the important stuff hardwired in, and they just do their thing. They don’t really have choices like we do. But if we choose to destroy ourselves and/or most other life on the planet, I’m not sure smartness is such a good idea.

    Having said all that, I’d be interested to read the book. I sure hope they’re not just talking about romantic love though, are they?

    • not just romantic love, no. they are concerned with love in all it’s manifestations: parent – child, siblings, even the love of things, be they words or steam trains, at times.

      i actually quite like the term Reptilian Brain and i choose it over the more common, Lizard Brain (which i shy away from, weirdly enough, for much the same reasons you put forward). I don’t like the term Brainstem, for which i can’t provide a decent reason, but i find it, if not scientifically valid, then metaphorically valid – the reptilian brain representing an efficient plateau of evolution, absolutely devoid of emotion, which we carry around in us and share with our fake-teared crocodile cousins (adopted).

      and, sure, our brains are freakishly big, and some of these brains certainly seem to be selecting themselves for extinction (or something close to it) but its important to point out that the freakishly large brain existed in our ancestors (and many contemporaries) for hundreds of thousands of years, if not over a million, depending on who you believe, before what we would recognise as our culture got all hari-kari-ish.

      i don’t want to dismiss smartness (somewhat of an ironic definition there) too quickly, who knows, maybe the next lot will get it right.

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