A General Theory of Love. Lewis T, Amini F, and Lannon R.

Lewis T, Amini F, and Lannon R.  A General Theory of Love. Vintage New York 2001. NF. 01/13

Right after Christmas, in the grey weeks of disappointment, I went into a bookstore desperate for redemption and straight in front of me, radiating retailer’s January misery, was a display table with a big sign on it that said “The Brain”.

The Brain. The Idea of the New Year, frothing epiphenomenally with scientific America’s confident assault on the mind-body problem. I’m reminded of all the times I thought it would be interesting to wear a tweed coat, switch to public transit, subscribe to The Economist, only to find within six months everybody doing exactly those things. I had sensed something cooking in the overlap between philosophy of mind and consciousness neurology, and so a couple of years ago started reading in that territory, and lo I’ve been stuffing myself with Chapters’ Idea of the New Year.

I think I can snatch from otherwise fatal trivialization of my interest a metaphysical view on the old problem, but I’ll save that for my review of The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio, the granddaddy of this flock of brain books, which is one of my partly-read layabouts, thank God nearly finished.

The General Theory authors are psychiatrists, and it looks like Lewis is the writer. Why the other two are on the cover isn’t completely clear, but among the three of them they agree with some of the better psychiatrists I know that to make walking the walk of drug treatment stay on track, you have to talk the talk with people about what’s really bugging them. So what’s the General Theory?

Love is limbic.

We humans have a “triune” brain. A reptilian stem to keep the body turning over and reproduce the species, a warm fuzzy mammalian limbic system to connect with other humans (especially mum), and a come-lately neocortical computer for outsmarting everybody including ourselves. The three of them don’t necessarily cooperate and there is plenty of struggle over who is in command. The limbic part has the critical characteristic of benefiting from and depending on human interaction, or attachment. When you look deep into your lover’s eyes as you did your mother’s when you were two weeks old, you experience “limbic resonance”. This is the magic series of events wherein mammals exchange understanding and come to depend on one another. We have intuitions which are “implicit memory”, powered by a subconscious (we use the Freudian term only colloquially) calculation of innumerable past experiences: it feels like rain. This is the place I want to live in. See Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings.

Attachment theory, the  understanding of psychopathology pioneered by Dr. John Bowlby in the 1950s, works through this resonance. If you feel unhappy, can’t help being afraid, keep falling in love with the wrong people, and end up hating yourself, it’s because of healthy attachments that needed to form and didn’t when you were a little child, a baby, and (yes) a fetus. Good psychotherapy listens to the limbic music however dissonant, and the patient is “limbically known” through connection with the therapist, which requires a risk on his part.

The writing is impressive, and there is a lovely ease of figurative artfulness that’s hard not to envy. But Dr Lewis, no doubt a wonderful psychotherapist, is going to get better at avoiding letting us readers in on his high opinion of the sound of his own voice. We find:

While science can afford us a closer glimpse of this tower or that soaring wall, the heart’s castle still hangs high in the heavens, shrouded in scudding clouds and obscured by mist.

near the end of the book, weirdly reminding us of Prospero’s dream speech. But within a sentence or two comes:

Will science ever announce a complete revelation of all of love’s secrets?… Of course not.

in the face of the idea on page 5 that because it’s part of the physical world, love must obey ineluctable laws. Dr. Lewis will straighten out his metaphysics too.

I learned a lot from this book including some new evidence-based neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. It also ranges over child-rearing, psychotherapy, love itself, and some history of science, most of it quite interesting and very nicely served up. The pluses far outweigh the minuses. Overall 8.8

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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