One of my all-time favorite books is “A General Theory of Love” by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. It’s one of those paradigm-shifting arguments, the kind that forever alters your perception of the world. That’s not hyperbole for me. I really love this book. I found it in grad school while studying for a seminar on evolutionary political cognition (an unrelated yet fascinating topic I might write about later). My wife read it, too, and had the same reaction. In fact, we liked the book so much we incorporated passages of it into our wedding ceremony.
Believe it or not, it’s not an overly romantic book, as the title might suggest. The authors are three MDs, so their findings are research-based and representative of cutting-edge findings in the field of cognitive sciences. The “general theory” builds from the cognitive phenomena that allow us to feel and emote, demonstrating that we’re not as far removed from the other mammals on earth as we like to believe, and we have not conquered our passions and need for socialization as much as our cultural narrative assumes.
Central to our being is the hypothalamus, the area of the brain responsible for our emotions, connection and socialization. It is above – both literally and figuratively – the reptilian brain, which regulates our basic survival mechanisms like heartbeat, breathing and fight or flight responses. It also sits below our neocortex, the area associated with pattern recognition, speech, language, and most of our higher cognitive processing abilities that make us human. All mammals have some version of a hypothalamus – without it, female elephants wouldn’t protect their children or the children of their relatives, bats wouldn’t punish other bats who don’t share the food they’ve gathered, wolves wouldn’t hunt in packs, and male gorillas wouldn’t assert their dominance. Humans do all of this, too, but the main thing that differentiates us from other mammals is we can identify and describe these behaviors (like I’m doing right now) as well as regulate and mandate different behaviors.The thalamus lets us connect with other beings, and lets us act in a way that benefits the collective, sometimes even at the expense of the individual.
So knowing this, then, what is love?
It’s not just a romantic notion. It’s a real, chemical, physical cognitive reaction to another being. It does not happen only between romantic partners either – love can develop between parents and children, friends and colleagues, humans and pets, and groups.
It’s called limbic regulation. When in a relationship, our brain doesn’t regulate our body by itself. As it turns out, your partner’s presence alters your cardiovascular function, sleeping patterns, immune system and hormone levels. And the interactions go both ways. It’s how female mammals know something is wrong with an infant, and in relationships, the process can be so strong and persistent as to lead to limbic revision, in which another person outside of yourself can essentially rewrite your own neural pathways in a process called limbic revision. These multipliers of our physical and emotional well being protect us again inevitable pain and suffering of all kinds, and allow us to carry on as a species in the worst of times.
So, knowing this, what are the implications for how we live our lives? These three MDs argue that we need to be thinking harder about what we value. What’s going to make us most happy and healthy? Career advancement and big bank accounts matter, but reaching for these at the expense of friends and family will weaken your mind and body. So what are the cultural values we’ve come to judge the most important? What will we pass on to the next generation, if not our evolutionary, emotional, physical, literal desire for meaningful connections to other human beings? Are we doing our due diligence to prepare ourselves and future generations for the future? Our culture celebrates material success and notoriety instead of benevolence, goodwill and unconditional love, so if you buy the “General Theory,” we might be in trouble.
We are at the limits of what we truly know about human emotion and cognition, and at this point we don’t know what we don’t know. In the words of the “General Theory,” we deny the needs of our hearts at our own peril.
Just… read it. You won’t be disappointed.
“A General Theory of Love” on Amazon.
P.S. As a bonus, if you want to approach this topic from the opposite angle, check out “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” by John T. Cacioppo. While “A General Theory” mostly discusses the positive benefits of love, “Loneliness” looks the same emotive areas of the brain and what happens in the absence of love, or even worse, true and total isolation. It’s a bit less entertaining, though. And, uh, bleak.