Eric & family, from left, Aunt Josie, Joseph,
and Justin, circa 1992. Photo by Sabine.

A Plausible Theory of How We
Might Get Out of This Mess

Planet Waves by Eric Francis

MY HAKOMI THERAPY class was assigned a book called A General Theory of Love and, doing my homework for a change, I gave it a read. Written by three medical doctors, specifically, men I can fairly represent as extraordinarily spiritually aware neurologists, it's a look at our relationships from the standpoint of brain function. Lest this subject scare anyone away owing to its potential complexity, the first thing I must mention about this book is that it's written eloquently and never once strays off into technical or intellectual abstraction. It's also gone to the top of my This Book May Save Your Ass list.

There can be no doubt that our culture is in trouble, speaking emotionally. "A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in depriving people of what they crave the most," the authors write as the book draws to its conclusion. What do we crave? Touch, eye contact, the sound of a voice, the reassuring presence of a warm human being breathing next to us while we sleep. What we get is a world in which intimate relationships are relegated to the level of hygienic routine or an optional extra-curricular activity, and in which the skills we need to coexist in harmony with our fellow people are being steadily stripped away.

The problem gets worse the more prosperous we become, as we overeat, overspend and create one substitute after another for human connection, then struggle with the results. The Spam filters on my computer have trapped more than 17,000 pieces of junk email in recent months. Most of them are offering me the comfort of a female body, which would arrive in the form of digital photographs. Pornography sells so well not only because we're deprived of touch, but also because touch and its emotional results are alien experiences to so many people.

This sounds like a romantic argument, not a technical one. But the authors are neurologists, and make their case from the standpoint of evolutionary science that has looked back at the 100 million year history of the emotional capacity that distinguishes mammals. It is not milk production, bearing live young or a coating of fur that makes us so, but rather the capacity to feel and resonate with one another using something called the limbic portion of the brain. Anyone who has ever felt the sweet universe of a child's gaze has tuned into this portion of their awareness.

The brain, the authors say, evolved in three major leaps and we carry the legacy of each. First was the reptilian brain, located in people where the base of the neck meets the top of the spine. It governs what we do but don't think about, like breathing and kidney function. Animals that have only a reptilian brain do things like eat their own babies and don't feel bad about it. (It is clearly the reptilian brain that leads us into the Burger King drive-through.)

Then creatures developed the capacity to feel. That came with the limbic brain. There is a distinct difference between a frog and a dog (to name two critters that happen to rhyme) and that difference is called limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is that indescribable feeling of looking into your child's eyes, or those of your lover, or in reality your cat, dog or even a rat, and feeling that deeply pleasurable sense that someone alive feels you back. It's a trait common to mammals (some snake owners would disagree, I am sure, but if that's the case, something besides a limbic system is at work). The less effectively animals have the ability to access limbic reality, the more it seems like nobody's home when you look into their eyes (the Dubyasaurus, for example).

Your dog can't program in C++, however. That came with the cerebral brain, or neocortex. Abstract thinking, cold logic, developing concepts, and the invention of ideas are all neocortical programs. We used to think that this is what really made us human: the ability to design a bridge or machine gun. At some point we stopped listening to poets. As the aeons marched on, particularly in the past few hundred years -- the equivalent a nanosecond in the context of evolutionary time -- much of human culture abandoned limbic thinking (feeling) in favor of neocortical thinking (so-called logic, often devoid of feeling). As a result, we are left with the ability to design aircraft carriers and for the most part an utter lack of remorse about dropping bombs on people. Those who are alarmed about our culture's propensity toward war are the ones who have a functioning limbic system. They are also the ones who feel the devastation of the environment as a reality.

These three brains exist within us as something akin to separate identities. Operating in what we call the personality, they may express as instinct, emotion or conceptual reasoning, and the various qualities of identity that come with them: a person who acts with sensitivity, or ruthlessly, or is extremely instinctual, or is empathic. Some people have an ability to detach from pain, and from people in pain; others must do so; yet others will respond with empathy or even telepathy. The authors are wise enough to explain that even this model, while scientifically demonstrated, is a metaphor, like art. A General Theory of Love does not take into account documented phenomena such as memory and trauma stored in other organs (the liver, the muscles and so on) but using the brain as a model does not deny these possibilities.

There have been many attempts to divide up consciousness into three aspects: Freud's id, ego and superego; the Sun, the Moon and the Ascendant of astrology; the Self, the Soul and the Spirit of some theologies. The authors say that the three portions of the brain function as identities and that these identities. And in most cases, neocortical reality is overdeveloped, while limbic reality has been damaged or is underdeveloped. We meet people all the time whose tolerance of feelings is extremely low and who 'stuff' their emotions; others are whelmed with emotion and cannot seem to think. Some people give the distinct sense of having neither a functioning neocortex nor a limbic system and run in fully automatic mode -- pod people.

Yet here is what I consider to be one of the most important qualities on which this book sheds light: the propensity of people to attract the same kinds of partners in relationships, in particular, people who resemble their parents. Different traditions have explained this by karma, lack of maturity, needing to work on our issues or stupidity. Here is a different theory.

When we are growing up, the limbic system is extremely impressionable, and it's developing rapidly, particularly in the first two or three years of life. We learn to feel by resonance with others, a little like musicians tune up the band. Hopefully the keyboard is on key or the guitarist used an electronic tuner, or somebody has perfect pitch; if not, the whole band may be flat or sharp, or playing in a variety of different pitches. So it is in families. If the family is tuned to pain and resentment, the child will grow up harmonized to these emotions. If the family is tuned to compassion, support and caring, this is what the child will grow up -- biologically, as a function of brain development -- to both be aware of and to accept. People who are raised under harsh, depressive or insensitive circumstances will tend to attract just those tones of feeling. We develop what the authors describe as 'limbic attractors', which are neurological patterns that help us resonate with people kind of like the people we grew up with. As Will Hunting's therapist told him, "it's not your fault."

Not only is it difficult to resonate with others unlike those with whom we experienced childhood, it is nearly impossible to even see them. We quite literally tend not to notice, or to see, or to be able to hold any stability in a relationship with people who are tuned to a different frequency of limbic resonance than we are. And this explains why it's so easy to slip into relationships with people who resemble our parents and to some degree our siblings. This explains the concept of a 'love map' (developed by John Money) that teaches us how we seek love based on what our family of origin was like.

And they note that our culture is developing very strong patterns of limbic resonance that are cold, insensitive, and driven by logic and reason and not by compassion, and that from a scientific standpoint, this is extremely dangerous. They offer as one example the managed care system in which corporate drones are trained to intentionally send patients to hospitals where they are likely to get poor treatment, suffer and die, or to outright deny them the treatment they need as a way of saving money and increasing profits. They argue that mammals need to be put back at the helm of healthcare.

The solution, the authors reason, can happen in two stages. First, they offer a theory of why psychotherapy works, why it's important and how to allow it to work better. Working with a good therapist, we are developing new limbic patterns; we are literally changing our brain structures, granted, in subtle but effective ways, and developing the capacity to feel. As part of this process, we begin to recognize that relationship experiences other than the ones we had as children and repeated (and reinforced) as adults are possible. We can then take these experiences into the world and relate to others, now that we both have the capacity to do so, and the sense that it's even possible. But the authors caution that therapists must be chosen carefully because when we work with someone, we don't become generally healthier; we become more like that person.

The second is how we arrange our family lives, raise our children and conduct our relationships. The authors present evidence from numerous scientific studies which demonstrate that, for example, parents sleeping with their children allows the development of proper limbic functioning and will reduce the astonishingly high rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS, or crib death) in the United States. Many children spend too much time in day care to possibly develop healthy limbic responsiveness, in part because their actual parents are necessary to this process, and because day care centers have too high of a staff overturn for a solid attachment to develop between the child and the worker, which might at least offer a poor substitute. Correspondingly, we need to work within our relationships to consciously develop healthy emotional functioning, doing what spiritual teachers have said for many, many years: using our relationships as the most fertile ground for healing that there is.

And we need to do so not so much as a matter of pleasure, but of survival. But we can be sure that survival will feel really good. ++

A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis MD, Fari Amini MD and Richord Lannon MD, published in 2001 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York.