A General Theory Of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon
A fellow member of my congregation lent me this book to read, as is often the case among my friends who know my love of reading, and my tendencies to read about love. Reading this book gave me a great deal of distress, it is full of unpleasant reminders about the lasting and damaging effects of a horrific childhood, it is full of gloomy and accurate statements about the current state of affairs in our contemporary American (and indeed Western) society with its exploitative institutions like governments and corporations with their reptilian lack of mutuality, and the coldness and remoteness of so much psychiatry and medicine with its glittering neocortical rationality that nonetheless fails to meet the real and genuine and deep emotional needs of humanity, particularly those who are seeking wholeness and restoration. As a person of fairly extreme sensitivity, this was not a pleasant book to read. Nevertheless, despite an overreliance on bogus evolutionary thought, it was a book that was worth reading and containing far more beautiful poetry and genuine hope than one would initially suspect possible from a book written by three medical doctors.
In terms of its contents, the book takes an organized course through a dazzling array of subjects related to love insofar as it can be scientifically understood and explored. The authors are candid about the limitations of contemporary science, but they are able to point to enough research, and have enough respect for the reader as well as for other scientists and artists that they are able to at least shine a flashlight into the dark terrain of the heart and mind. At its core, this book argues persuasively and insistently that the tragedy of contemporary society is that our brain’s limbic system, which allows for emotional bonding, and which we share with other beings like mammals (including our cuddly and relation-minded pets) is being neglected between societal trends that focus either on the rational neocortical system where our rationality resides or the reptilian brain that is exhibited by our predatory institutions. What is being neglected and damaged is our ability to love, to be loyal to each other, to be able to spend the time to get to know others deeply and to bond with them, whether we are talking about children and parents, lovers and friends, or our relationships with doctors and therapists.
As a way of saving myself further distress I will not detail the insistent drumbeat of sad empirical data that the authors discuss about the cruel consequences of disastrous childhoods in the scourges of intense anxiety and a proclivity to depression, where every stress of life becomes a cascade of intense and distressing feeling. Those who know me well can see those effects without my having to state them yet again. What I would like to discuss, though, is that this book offers some encouragement and hope for a better future even for those who suffer deeply. Part of the hope is in an immensely skillful understanding of brain physiology that involves the relief of the somatic systems of distress so that people can live lives with more carefully modulated emotional responses. However, the vast majority of that hope rests in good relationships, by which people can see better functioning ways of behavior that allow for more successful lives in love and family. It is through the fostering of relationships with people, wherein we can grow to see our world with new eyes of love and understanding, that the author hopes people may be healed over time from the horrors of their youth. It is pleasing to see that my own intuitive solutions to my own problems is one recommended by scientists at the cutting edge of anatomy and physiology concerning the brain. It only remains for the efforts to bear fruit.
The surpassing achievement of this book is the fact that it manages to discuss a complex and often neglected field among scientists, the firm empirical basis of our behaviors and attitudes concerning love, and manages to do so in a way that combines scientific rigor with genuine emotional sensitivity, and more than a little passion as well as deep compassion for those who suffer in such areas of life. The authors cite studies, quote poets, and discuss contemporary political trends in ways that are deeply critical of contemporary political trends on both the right and the left for their dehumanizing and anti-relationship tendencies. Despite some missteps and initial hesitancy, the authors do succeed wonderfully in pointing the way to a general theory of love within the limbic system and the importance of relatedness and belonging to human well-being. We ignore the delicate and sensitive hardware of our brains at extreme peril, and this book reminds us at this late hour that our society is doing great harm by neglecting the importance of secure and loving relationships. Let us hope that it is not too late for us to change course, both individually and collectively.