The next perspective that I would like to introduce to you with regard to relationships is the concept of emotional or limbic development. This shines a brighter light on the process of attachment.
In their book ‘A General Theory of Love’ three American psychiatrists from the University of California, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon set out to explain the nature of love.
‘The purpose behind discerning the nature of love is not to satisfy ivory tower discussions or to produce fodder for academic delectation. Instead, as our work makes all too clear, the world is full of live men and women who encounter difficulty in loving or being loved, and whose happiness depends critically upon resolving that situation with the utmost expediency.”
‘In a dazzling vote of confidence for form over substance, our culture fawns over the fleetingness of being “in love” while discounting the importance of loving’.
In this book, the authors make the point that
‘Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”
Although ‘A General Theory of Love’ covers a lot of ground it’s central theme is something they call limbic (or emotional) development. Their approach can be summed up by these words:
‘Loving is limbically distinct from in love. Loving is mutuality; loving is synchronous attunement and modulation. As such, adult love depends critically upon knowing the 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 perused from preface to epilogue. Loving derives from intimacy, the prolonged and detailed surveillance of a foreign soul’.
In a General Theory of Love the doctors explain how the brain has 3 elements:
- The survival or reptilian brain,
- The neocortex or problem solving brain
- The limbic or emotional brain.
Their book focuses on Limbic (or emotional) Development. Within this concept of limbic development they outline 3 elements, which influence development of the emotions. These are
- Limbic resonance – how we become like the people we love.
- Limbic regulation – how we become regulated and manage our moods
- Limbic revision – how we learn empathy either during childhood or as a result of a therapeutic process.
The idea behind limbic resonance is that we physiologically become like the people we love. So if the child is raised by secure attached parents who know how to emotionally connect with the child, the child will learn to trust people, will understand and trust their emotions and trust themselves to find partners who are also securely attached in adulthood. As the authors say:
‘They absorb the skill from living in the presence of an adept external modulator, and they learn it implicitly. Knowledge leaps the gap from one mind to the other, but the learner does not experience the transferred information as an explicit strategy. Instead, a spontaneous capacity germinates and becomes a natural part of the self, like knowing how to ride a bike or tie one’s shoes. The effortful beginnings fade and disappear from memory.’
Children raised this way will accept themselves and understand that relationships are about loving.
In contrast, if a child has been raised by angry, detached parents, the child will tend to see anger as normal and be surprised when people suggest that they might be aggressive.
Equally if they are raised by someone like my mother ‘who doesn’t do emotions’ the child and later the adult will tend to appear emotionless, aloof and cold to others – again the person raised this way will see this as normal rather than a choice they made somewhere in their upbringing in order to ‘fit it’.
If you look at it another way, if I had been aware of emotions and the part they played in relating, I would have demanded emotions from my mother. Since she is unable to ‘do emotions’, she and I would have been constantly frustrated, so it is much easier to copy the behaviour and regard it as normal.
The best way to describe limbic regulation is ‘how we learn our moods’. The authors suggest that:
‘The benefits of deep attachment are powerful – regulated people feel whole, centered, alive’
and they go on to say that
‘without sufficient opportunity for limbic regulation, he cannot internalise emotional balance’.
An excellent description of limbic regulation has been presented by Lynn E O’Connor of the Wright Institute* in her review of a General Theory of Love when she writes:
The authors begin by explaining the bald fact that infants are born with their limbic systems “open” and unregulated, and they need their mothers’ absolute closeness to slowly, over time, get regulated. They make clear that this is a two-way thing, the mother also needs the limbic connection with her baby, in order to be limbically regulated. And they go way beyond infant regulation, Lewis et al. carefully describe how homo sapiens are never capable of self-regulation, we are in a sense, forever wired with an “open loop” limbic system, that requires a limbic connection with another, to be successfully regulated’.
The General Theory of Love also introduces the idea of what they call ‘Attractors’ which suggests that we will become attracted to the familiar pattern of experiences which have been subconsciously imprinted us when we were growing up.
Or as the authors say:
‘When confronted with repetitive experiences, the brain unconsciously extracts the rules that underlie them.’
An example of limbic regulation might be when a child learns to ride a bike. When the child inevitably falls off the bike they do not intrinsically know how to react to the event. It is only when they look to the parents that they find out if the event is perceived to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
If the parent is laughing and enjoying the experience of helping the child to ride the bike they recognise that falling off and getting back on is part of the learning experience and the joy of riding a bike. They will encourage the child to see the funny side of things and get back on the bike.
In contrast, if the parent is anxious and runs up to the child and cuddles them and tells them that they ‘don’t have to ride the horrible bike’, they will learn to be anxious and scared of trying and learning new things.
The first approach will encourage the child to decide that the world is basically a benevolent place where they can learn new things and have new adventures. The second approach will encourage the child to decide that the world is basically a malevolent place to be feared and to protect themselves from potentially dangerous or risky experiences.
A limbically attuned mother can tell a fearsome fall from a harmless one. When a child senses his mother’s fear, his anxiety rises or falls in harmony with hers…After he compares what he feels with what his mother shows, a child’s emotional read on the world moves closer to hers.
If you imagine that a child is programmed to be ready to be regulated by the mother a lack of limbic regulation is also the way that we can get disconnected from our emotional selves. As I have mentioned before when I was a small child my school told my parents that I cried a lot. When they told me about this, I can remember deciding that if crying a lot was not acceptable, I would not cry. I still find it hard to cry now. Looking at this decision from a limbic regulation perspective, since no one was interested or concerned about why I cried a lot, I learnt to disconnect my emotions from my experiences. In the process of doing this I of course avoided a lot of pain but also did not experience joy either. I would have developed the attractor that life is a bit dull and negative and therefore attracted events and people, which reinforced this view.
I remember my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood as being very flat and boring as though I was watching an uninteresting film of my life although at the time of course I had no idea why. Even now when something happens which is so overwhelmingly exciting that I cannot ignore the fact, I feel as though I am completely overwhelmed by my feelings and don’t know what to do about them. I am almost childlike in my response since for these occasions I have no ability to modulate or control my feelings or express them appropriately.
Interestingly enough in my family I was not allowed to be joyful but I was allowed to be sad. So in effect I was programming myself for a lifetime of sadness (without crying) since only those emotions enabled me to get any attention and ‘fit in’ to the family.
Veronica also told me a story about how her emotions became disconnected from her experiences. When she was about 7 she remembers being excited about going to a children’s party. She was all dressed up and ready to go when she reminded her mother who was vacuuming at the time about the party. Looking at her watch her mother said, ‘it’s too late now, you have missed the party’.
Veronica was deeply disappointed. If her mother had said ‘oh I am really sorry I forgot’ or ‘we might be a bit late but I will get you there’ or ‘I am so sorry that I forgot but I will take you out for a treat later instead’ her disappointment would have been acknowledged. Instead her mother completely discounted her emotions and in the process started to train her in not getting excited and not being able to express emotions. You may think ‘well these were such small things and you can’t blame your parents’. What I think happens is that there are numerous small things that we just take in our stride and then one day we just notice the pattern that our emotions are not welcomed or acknowledged and that is the day or the event that we decide consciously or unconsciously to disconnect our emotions from the events in front of us.
This is how we are trained to be in touch with our emotions or trained to disassociate from them. We then develop attractors to reinforce this view and make decisions on our own personal psychological bingo board about the way we should be.
If limbic regulation is about regulating your emotions, limbic revision is the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love. Limbic revision can either be learnt subconsciously in our childhood from empathetic and attuned parents or can be learned from a therapeutic professional who also has the ability to tune into the needs of their client
According to the authors of a General Theory of Love, limbic revision is how we learn to have empathy. To bring this idea to life, imagine a children’s party and Mary hits Johnny on the head and Johnny cries because he has been hit.
If Johnny’s mother complains to Mary’s mother and Mary’s mother tells Mary to apologise to Johnny because she has hurt him, Mary will learn that it is wrong to hit other children because you hurt them. Equally if Mary’s mother tells Johnny’s mother that Johnny is a crybaby and ‘should just grow up’. Mary will not learn empathy and Johnny will learn that it is not appropriate to cry when he is hurt, thus reinforcing the ‘boys don’t cry’ stereotype.
It is as a result of these apparently small and insignificant moments that as children we make decisions about how we should ‘be’ in our emotional lives. In doing so I also believe that we make a binary decision on our Psychological Bingo Board ie whether we should be strong or weak, happy or sad.
The authors suggest that most of our emotional development is achieved during our pre verbal years and requires ‘mountains of repetition’ and ‘years of long-standing togetherness’ to write permanent changes into a brain’s open book. In a relationship one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner.
So what relevance does the theory of limbic development have to our relationships in later life?
I will consider the answer to this question in my next blog.
With thanks to Jo Grant and Stella Pitman for permission to use their photographs
*Review by Lynn E O’Connor The Wright Institute, Berkeley, California, USA.The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 89-91
Please note that this article is Copyright and cannot be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any way without prior permission of the author.