As I have mentioned before the intention behind this book and my own personal quest to learn about love is to identify what beliefs, qualities, skills and elements would lead to a successful and fulfilling paired relationship.
Although I had done lots of reading, shared lots of experiences with people and understood more about relationships, it struck me that a piece of the jigsaw was missing. At this point I stumbled on a book called ‘A General Theory of Love’ by three professors of psychiatry working at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.
To me ideas of Thomas Lewis MD, Fari Amini MD, and Richard Lannon MD, where ground breaking and felt like I had found the missing piece of the puzzle.
In simple terms what the authors suggest is that we have three separate parts of our brains. The reptilian or survival brain, the neo cortex, which is the thinking, problem solving brain and the limbic brain, which is where our emotional and heart connection lies.
The authors mention that when reptiles have their young they often walk away from them straight after birth and appear to have no sense of attachment to them. The reptilian brain is that part of us that helps us to survive and on it’s own it can be quite detached and cold.
The neo cortex brain on the other hand is about thinking and problem solving. This is the part of the brain that helps us to function in the world and make decisions about the multiple choices that are presented to us everyday.
On the other hand the limbic brain is that part of the brain that is associated with emotional and heart connection. Which is where our sense of empathy, acceptance and heart felt love comes from. According to the authors and other researchers the limbic brain is developed in the first few years of life when loving care givers give the infant the sense of security and love they need to function in the world.
Limbic development occurs mainly at the pre verbal stage and is communicated through physical contact – cuddles, eye contact, gentle strokes and soothing words, from care givers who are able to give love and create a bond between themselves and the child. Essentially a healthy care giver is able to ‘tune into’ and meet the needs of the infant and develop the child as a unique and separate individual.
Obviously how well this process is done will depend on the care givers own limbic development and how they feel about themselves and the world. If they are happy and have a good emotional and heart connection they will be able to communicate this to the infant who will begin to feel secure and relaxed around them and other people who look after them. In essence they are creating a sense of peace and safety in the child.
In the book ‘A General Theory of Love’ the authors suggest that there are three elements to limbic development, which they call limbic resonance, limbic regulation and limbic revision. These channels are how the infant learns to ‘be’ in the world and how to relate to others.
In terms of limbic resonance the authors mention that we become physically and mentally like the people we love. So that if a parent is anxious, stressed or detached with negative beliefs about themselves and the world, the child will also assimilate this behaviour and perspective. So the child may present itself as nervous, inflexible and anti social.
On the other hand a child who was raised by loving, healthy care givers, who sensed the inarticulated needs of the child and acted on them by providing appropriate attention created an almost telepathic connection which fostered a sense of security and curiousity about the world.
The second element of limbic development is limbic regulation. I interpret this as how we learn our moods. To demonstrate this, the authors give the example of a child learning to ride a bike. When a child learns to ride a bike they often fall off but it is not until they look towards the parent that they can decide how to react to what has happened. If the parent is anxious and concerned for their safety, the child will believe that being upset is an appropriate reaction to falling off the bike. If the parent is laughing affectionately and encourages the child to get back on the bike the child will believe that a certain amount of discomfort and trial and error is just part of the adventure of learning new skills.
The last element in the process of limbic development is limbic revision, which is about how we learn to interact with others and feel empathy with them. To illustrate this say Sammy is at a party and hits Chrissy. If Chrissy’s mother complains and Sammy’s mother says ‘well it was their fault they should have ducked’ or ‘it was only a small tap I don’t know what you are bothering about’, Sammy learns that it is ok to hit Chrissy and other children. If Sammy’s mother tells their child that it is not ok to hit other children because it hurts them and that if they do hit other children that they need to apologise, they begin to learn empathy. Equally if one sibling hits another sibling and nothing is said about this despite protests from the hurt child that child will learn that it is not ok to defend themselves, and that other people are allowed to hit them. Again this is a training, which will carry on through the rest of their lives.
So a child who has experienced healthy limbic development will find it easy to be attached to their primary care givers and be able to make connections with other people when they come into their circles and develop healthy relationships in adult life. In contrast a child who has experienced incomplete or clumsy limbic development may be nervous as they approach the world and become anxious when meeting new people.
The authors also suggest that once healthy limbic development has been achieved, the child does not continue to cling to the caregivers but that they reach a point at which they have received enough limbic fulfillment to enable them to function as independent adults who can form relationships with emotional depth.
Repetition is the basis of limbic development so if you scale this process up to the daily events that happen all the time, the child now has a default mechanism, which defines whether they approach the world with excitement or fear. In the General Theory of Love they suggest that the adoption of a certain world view can be explained by the presence of ‘Attractors’ which simply means
‘we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear anew what we have heard most often, think just what we have always thought……… No individual can think his way around his own Attractors, since they are embedded in the structure of thought”
According to the authors these Limbic Attractors create the fascinating and confusing interplay of emotions described by Freud as ‘transference’ which helps to explain why humans have the tendency to respond emotionally to certain others as if they were figures from one’s past.
They also suggest that the feelings we experience when we are ‘in love’ are very different from the experience of ‘loving’.
‘Loving’ is limbically distant from ‘in love.’ Loving is mutuality, loving is synchronous attunement and modulation. As such adult love depends critically upon ‘knowing’ each other. ‘In love’ demands only the brief acquaintance necessary to establish an emotional genre but does not demand that the book of the beloved’s soul be persued from preface to epilogue. Loving derives from intimacy, the prolonged and detailed surveillance of a foreign soul’
So what are the implications of competent or clumsy limbic development from the perspective of forming intimate adult relationships?
Well the authors take a very global and somewhat depressing view of this question.
‘In a culture gone shallow, plastic surgery supplants health, photogenicity trumps leadership, glibness overpowers integrity, sound bites replace discourse; and changing what ‘ is’ fades before the busy label swapping of political correctness. When society loses touch with limbic bedrock, spin wins.’
And at an individual level they make this observation:-
‘If the neglect is sufficiently profound, the result is a functionally reptilian organism armed with the cunning of the neocortical brain.’
The General Theory of Love suggests that we become physically, mentally and emotionally like the people we love. Since our style of limbic development is mainly carved out at the pre verbal level by our primary care givers and then reinforced through repetition as we grow up, it is suggested that it is very difficult to reverse any negative effects for a number of reasons. These are
- Psychotherapies work at the neo cortex, verbal level when much of the limbic damage has been done at the preverbal level. So although a therapist can introduce strategies to function better in the world that work quickly what is actually required is a replication of the long protracted repetitive experience of limbic development which is undertaken by a healthy, loving and attuned care giver.
- According to the authors of a General Theory of Love, there is very little evidence that one form of therapy is more effective than another form of therapy but what does seem to make a difference is the person of the therapist. It is their ability to shape the new world of the patient through limbic transmission and reconfigure their limbic Attractors, which enable the patient to live well, feeling centred and whole. So in order to feel better, patients need to find a therapist who has ‘put their own house in order’, is prepared to engage in their own open adventure of exploration, acts as an adept external modulator and uses a process which does not get in the way of limbic transmission.
- Due to the nature of Attractors, which govern who and what we are attracted to, it is very difficult to see our ‘blind spots’. In other words we do not realise that we are limbically underdeveloped if we are surrounded by people who are also limbically underdeveloped.
- A person will prefer the emotional patterns of the family they know, regardless of its objective merits, over people or groups who could love them well.
- To a person with faulty Attractors there are no potential loving partners available since from their point of view all those with healthy limbic development are invisible to them.
The authors of a General Theory of Love make this observation
‘A relationship that strays from one’s prototype is limbically equivalent to isolation. Loneliness outweighs most pain. These two facts collude to produce one of love’s common and initially baffling quirks: most people will choose misery with a partner their limbic brain recognizes over the stagnant pleasure of a ‘nice’ relationship with someone their attachment mechanisms cannot detect’.
To me it is fascinating how many books on relationships are mostly concerned with quick fix neo cortex (thinking and problem solving) strategies for getting women into bed and how to catch the man and march them down the aisle. Which when you think about it are all to do with how to manipulate and control another person.
In comparison little is said about what to do after you have bedded all the women you want but feel empty or have got your man yet still feel unsatisfied at a deep level. Hardly anything is written about how to form a heart felt deep, lasting, intimate connection with another human being.
So what can we personally do to change the terrain of our own limbic maps?
Although the authors of the General Theory of Love paint a rather gloomy picture of what can be done to improve the quality of our limbic resonance, limbic regulation and limbic revision they do make a few suggestions, which I have also added to.
- Find a therapist who is prepared to relate to you in terms of limbic development, and who has embraced their own emotional and regulated limbic journey.
- If you become like the people you love – seek out and choose to be around people who are more healthy and who can help you to regulate yourself.
- Join groups where you can meet people with similar and different Attractors to widen your perspectives .
- Observe when your feelings, reactions and needs seem to be out of kilter with the events that are happening to you.
- Start to notice the people with healthy limbic systems who you might previously have thought invisible.
- Deliberately learn the skills of limbic development, which include listening without judgement, being present, making eye contact, sensing the moods and emotions of others and identifying their needs.
- Realise that limbic development takes mountains of repetition so that the brain is rather like a super tanker, which will take lots of time, effort and resources to turn around.
- Increase your self awareness and mind/body connection through meditation
- Recognise that healthy relationships may not be as exciting or dramatic as you might be used to in the past but will lead to a lasting and deep attuned connection with other people which will deepen your knowledge of them and yourself.
What are the implications of poor limbic development to forming loving relationships?
We are born with the ability to be limbically connected and appropriately attached to other human beings. When this potential is developed children learn to tune into other people in the same way that their care givers are able to tune into them. This enables them to achieve lasting and deep relationships in adult life where a both people can feel complete, centred, alive and regulated.
In contrast when this development is impaired an important part of their infinite possibilities is shut down with the result that they are forced to rely on their neo cortex and reptilian brains to function in life.
As a result of repetitive patterns of behaviour people develop Attractors in the brain which will seek out people with similar Attractors . Since the people in the pair or group have the same deficit it becomes part of a self reinforcing ‘blind spot’ or ‘group think’. These groups are made up of people who are in effect only firing on two of the three possible cylinders or parts of the brain.
The main message I want to convey in this chapter is how little attention is paid to limbic development in western society. Increasingly we are relying on our reptilian (survival) and neo-cortex (thinking and problem solving) brains to help us make decisions and to live our lives, including when it comes to relationships.
The trouble with strategy is that when we do not get our needs met in an appropriate and direct manner we make decisions either consciously or unconsciously, which enable us to get the attention we crave and meet our needs met in an indirect or inauthentic manner.
In the process we lessen our true selves by shutting off those aspects of ourselves that others do not acknowledge or want to see or hear and we can learn to be manipulative and control in order to get other people to do things for us. Since this process is inauthentic it can lead to low self esteem and placing the responsibility for satisfying our needs in the hands of others which can be a hard and unfulfiling role for the person who tries to rise to this challenge.
Although searching for and finding our ‘other half to complete us is extremely exciting, gives you an emotional ‘high’ and makes you feel wonderful, as I have mentioned before, this feeling is usually time limited. I believe that developing the disowned bits of yourself rather than completing yourself through another person is the way forward and hope to demonstrate this in the next section on the Psychological Bingo Board.
In this chapter I will put forward a theory which explains how we become the personalities we are and what implications this has for the people we attract and choose to pair with. It will also suggest how we can develop (or complete) ourselves through your own personal development rather than rely on the meeting your ‘other half’ in romantic relationships.
If you have any comments about this post I would be very interested to hear from you
For more information on assertiveness, influencing (including building rapport), negotiation, conciliation, taking a stand and making peace in a step-by-step manner please refer to the People Skills Revolution and the People Skills Revolution Handbook published by Global Professional Publishing.
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