A General Theory of Love Summary and Review

by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
Has A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. We talk about love all the time, but we usually don’t talk about the science of it.  Often seen as a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon it is generally believed that human love has no existence within the cold realm of science, that love simply won’t give up its secrets to scientific study.  Long considered the exclusive dominion of poets and artists, it is considered that scientists have little or nothing to contribute to our understanding of the subject of love.  Fortunately, not everyone believes in this unilateral distinction.  Three psychiatrists, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, combine their scientific and practical expertise with the rich cultural heritage that artists, poets and philosophers have left for us over the centuries in order to explore the love’s mystery as incisively and comprehensively as possible.     In the book summary, you’ll discover: In this summary of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon,
  • what evolution has to do with our attachment to others
  • how childhood experiences influence our adult relationships 
  • how psychotherapy can help us develop healthy relationships by rewiring our brains
  • why physical pain can reduce severe emotional pain
  • the difference between loving and being in love and why it's so important

A General Theory of Love Key Idea #1: The Human Brain

Hippocrates, the first physician of the Western world, as early as 450 BC proposed that emotions – such as love – are a product of the brain rather than the heart.  As you can see, the unraveling of human emotions by science is not new.  Hippocrates’ hypothesis turned out to be correct, but a long time, more than 2000 years, for scientists to begin closely examining the human brain and its effect on their behavior Our modern knowledge of the brain has far exceeded that which even the prescient Hippocrates could have predictedthanks to the scientific discoveries of the past few decades.  How the human brain has changed over the millennia of our development as a species is one such discovery.  It was necessary for our ancestors to adapt to new climates and conditions in order to survive. These changes included their brains, which helped them to survive in their changing environments.  As an example of one of these changes, our distant ancestors were forced to move from the forest habitat to the dry savannah plains by climate changeDuring this migration, their brains had to adapt to out-smart predators and find food or they would not have survived in this harsh environment Step by step, change by changethe human brain structures were gradually transformed.  Do we have any evidence that supports this theory?  There are three subsections that map out the human brain’s evolutionary history.  The Reptilian Brain sits at the top of the spinal cord.  It is the oldest part of our brain and controls our most basic bodily functions and impulses.  Next, situated around the reptilian brain, is the Limbic Brain. The development of the limbic brain has been crucial for the evolution of mammals, here such famous components as the amygdala, which plays a major role in the creation of fear can be found. The limbic brain enables them to feel an attachment towards their young.  Mammals, as a result, can form close social groups, unlike reptiles will protect offspring or mates and play with each other.  The Neocortex, or Newest Brainis the most recently developed and largest section of the human brain. The Neocortex allows us to make decisions based on careful thought rather than instinct.  It is behind such qualities as reasoning, planning, and speaking, and, quite frankly, is what makes us human.  This three-part brain schema doesn’t always work well together.  This helps us to better understand why our relationship behavior can often be surprising. 

A General Theory of Love Key Idea #2: Attachment

Powerful emotions such as love or attachment feel so wonderful that we frequently believe they must come from something as equally mysterious and profound.  The truth is, they are not mysterious at all. Like all feeling, love and attachment are the product of neurotransmitters, chemicals in the brain that influence our bodies and cause-specific reactions we associate with love.  Three important neurotransmitters flow from our brains and influence our sense of attachment. First is the neurotransmitter serotonin. Its role includes relieving feelings of anxiety and depression. In some people, serotonin can even reduce the traumatic effects of grief and heartbreak from losing a person with whom they felt a close attachment.  Increasing levels of serotonin for people in unhappy relationships, who can’t let go because they fear the feelings of loss, can help them to finally make the break.  This can be done by means of anti-depressant medications such as Prozac.  Oxytocin is the second neurotransmitter tied to a sense of attachment.  Responsible for the bond between mother and childhis chemical is present in high quantity during childbirth and breastfeedingOxytocin also plays a role in the emotion of attachment throughout adult life as well.  While studying two species of prairie dog – the vole and the montane vole – it was observed by Thomas Insel that voles are monogamous in adulthood.  They mate for life spending much of their day sitting together. The montane vole, in contrast, is much less social, displaying minimal attachment behavior, as they have many different mates and often abandon their young.  Why should there be such wildly different behavior?  The only difference Insel found between them was the level of oxytocin found in the brains of the two species. His major insight was that this neurotransmitter had a major impact on attachment behavior.  Next, we’ll take a look at, opiates, the third important chemical in our perception of love.   
We read dozens of other great books like A General Theory of Love, and summarised their ideas in this article called Vulnerability
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A General Theory of Love Key Idea #3: Opiates

Upon touching a hot stove, a child will most likely cry out in pain.  After this experience, he’ll probably think twice about going near a hot stove again because he won’t want to experience such pain again.   Physical damage puts the body at risk of death, so the development of a neural system that senses injury was a crucial step in human evolution. It is the feeling of pain that helps humans learn to stay away from anything that could possibly hurt them.  While the brain’s ability to produce pain is most certainly crucial to human survival, it is equally important that it can reduce or control pain when it arises.  Opiatesthe third main neurotransmitter involved in attachment comes into play here.  Not only can opiates alleviate physical pain: they help us to cope with the trauma and hardships that follow emotionally painful events such as the breakdown of a romantic relationship.  What reason would there be for these chemicals have a dual function like this?  During the development of the limbic brain, it was critical for mammals to have the ability to become attached to each other and to bear the pain of a lost attachment. A system for experiencing and alleviating physical pain (using opiates), had already been developed by the brain so this was simply adapted to deal with emotional pain as well.  Seems like an easy solution, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, there can be a dark side to the dual role of opiates.  It could be responsible for the physical harm some people cause to themselves when experiencing emotional pain. Teens who cut themselves are often suffering from intolerable emotional pain caused by traumatic social experiences. During the cutting processthe brain receives pain signals. When the brain then releases opiates meant to numb the physical suffering, the emotional pain is relieved as a side-effect. Self-harm might actually help them to feel better in this way. 

A General Theory of Love Key Idea #4: Attractors

Have you noticed that you often fail to notice small typos, such as “taht” instead of “that” when you read a text, even several times? Why do you suppose this is?  The presence of Attractors in the human brain is the reason for this common oversight.  Attractors are the interconnected elements of our memory that direct what we learn and experience by governing or influencing our perception. A good example of this is the ability to read poor handwriting, even with misshapen letters that are joined together so that each word becomes a scrawl.  It’s interesting that a reader can interpret even the worst handwriting correctly with very little effort. Your readers will still read the word “aouse” as “house” even if your handwritten “H” looks more like an “A”.  How does this happen?  There is an ideal or prototype letter “H” engraved in our memories. When we see a similar letter to this ideal appearance, the ideal letter takes command of our perception and enables us to mentally “autocorrect” any misshapen letters or typos. Thus, when we see the typo “taht,” the Attractor responsible for the prototype “that” enables us to understand the writer’s intended meaning by substituting the correct word.  While this is all interesting, what do Attractors have to do with human attachment?  Established through our life experiences in many areas, Attractors shape our memories and emotions.  Our brains construct Attractors to link our memories together from our earliest experiencesThe connections we have constructed in our brains determine whether one memory or emotion is linked to another. We have an ideal “H,” because we were taught what an “H” is supposeto look like.  Attractors also work on our limbic brain – the portion of our brain responsible for our emotionsIt is our experiences that enable us to form the ideal for feelings of attachment. This ideal will guide how we experience attachment as well as towards whom we feel the most intense attachment throughout our lives. 

A General Theory of Love Key Idea #5: Attachment

We’ve learned how different, interconnected elements called Attractors create our emotional memory.  What’s the result of all these connections?   As with almost everything in life, it’s important to get a good start. Every human being develops such networks during its lifetime and the larger the network, the more emotionally healthy a person is.  When we are newborn infants,  the limbic brain – which is responsible for our emotions is completely unregulated at the beginning of our emotional development.  Since they don’t come into the world knowing how to behave, newborns need their mothers to instruct them. It is through the influence of the mother that babies build their emotional prototype, or ideal.  This ideal helps them to shape further emotional experiences they will have as their life progresses.  Imagine a toddler staggering across the grassy ground in a park. Predictably, the child loses his balance and falls. The toddler then checks his mother’s face for the proper reaction to this situation.  The toddler will likely start to cry if the mother expresses alarm or concern.  On the other hand, the toddler may smile or even laugh with her if her face expresses amusement.  Since the basis of the emotional intelligence is the ability to empathize with others by gaining an intuitive understanding of another’s emotion and responding to it, the stability of the first connection between parent and child is absolutely crucial for the youngster’s development.  Although its results are most profound, “limbic regulation” is not for the young onlySince ware social creatures throughout our entire lives, emotional stabilization from outside is also required by adults.   Because of our persistent ability to connect with other people enables us to change the emotional Attractors in our brains we can grow and change emotionally.  We may think that being so dependent on external feedback as adults is a weakness, but it’s actually a great source of power.  We’d all behave like big kids for our entire lives without this ability to continually influence our limbic brain.   All of us need stable, healthy connections with others.  This can hopefully be found in our close, trusting relationships, such as with our close friends and romantic partners. 

A General Theory of Love Key Idea #6: Long-term Therapy

We have seen how much our feelings of attachment depend to a large degree on our experiences in childhood. Our emotional brain shapes the relationships we experienced during childhood and strongly influences our relationships as an adult.  If the most influential people who influenced the development of our limbic prototypes during our childhood (usually parents)were themselves emotionally undeveloped, and were unaware of their own emotional deficiencyit is likely we will inherit their emotional problems. It is in this way that our emotional programming is passed down from generation to generation  How do we break this pattern?  Psychotherapy is one important way to deal with this unfavorable programming.  It is the function of Attractors that allow psychotherapy to be effective.  Our experience is determined by our Attractors. It's as if you are wearing spectacles that have green lensesWith these on, everything in you see will be, in one way or another, tinged by and limited to green.  Your limbic system Attractors are shaping and limiting your feeling in much the same way.  This influence helps to determine your choice of friends and romantic partners.  Unfortunately, unstable relationships with those close to us during our childhood may result in shoddy programming.   It is fortunate then, that through psychotherapy, we can reprogram our emotional brain by altering the network of Attractors in the brain.  Psychotherapists often strongly disagree on the most effective approach and dispute each other’s theories and methods.  However; the specific therapeutic approach taken doesn’t really matter.  It is the ability to modify the patient’s Attractor network – a process called limbic revision - is what does matter. Psychotherapy is successful when it has helped the patient in altering his or her limbic patterns.  This has widened the color spectrum the patient can see beyond green, so the patient is able to begin consciously choosing friends and partners better suited to his or her needs. 

A General Theory of Love Key Idea #7: Not the Same

It was written by English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Whoso loves believes the impossible.”  Perhaps Browning managed to capture the essence of being in love, but let’s try to be more specific:  We experience three related feelings when we’re in love.  At first, we find ourselves so enraptured by the way our partner seems to fit with us so perfectly that we believe it’s impossible to ever fall for another person. While we know we are able to fall in love more than just once in our lives it is the subjective feeling that this person is “the one.” that is most important.  Next is the powerful desire to be physically close to the love interestWe begin to doubt our love, when this desire inevitably diminishes.  Finally, there is basically a “rewriting” of reality in the irresistible urge to ignore everything that has nothing to do with our experience of being in love.   This suggests an enormous difference between being in love and loving.  To bring two people together romantically, falling in love is crucial. But being “in love” is only a preamble to lovingwhich is all about long-term attachment. It is, therefore, inevitable that the period of being in love we call the “honeymoon period” will end.  Nevertheless, we want to believe that the feeling and the relationship will last forever because the feeling of being in love is so powerful.  Wbecome extremely disappointed, saddened and even depressed when the intense feelings finally end.  Unfortunately, the misleading idea that being in love is eternal is perpetuated throughout our culture with a persistent stream of TV shows, romantic comedies, romance novels and so on.   The typical pattern such stories follow is this: the main characters, fall in love over a very short period even though they know almost nothing about each other.  After overcoming some seemingly insurmountable obstacle to their relationship – they end up together.  At this point, the story is over.  Because this story is so common in our culture, we want to believe that it is the ideal version of love.  Ware disillusioned and surprised once we realize that being “in love is fleeting. 

A General Theory of Love Key Idea #8: A Changed Brain

As we discussed earlier, we are inevitably disappointed when we consider the feeling of being in love is the essence of loving itself.  But what is the real difference between being in love and loving?  It is the emotional connection that is the fundamental difference between the two.  One major difference lies in this; it is possible for a person to be in love with a person who does not return the feelingloving must always be mutual. In the process of loving, each person attunes him- or herself to the other, modulating their personality and behavior to fit that of the other partner.  Mature loving means you know each other deeply. All that’s required to fall in love is to simply be acquaintances who’ve known each other for a short time. It takes time and arises from long-term intimacy, to be loving.  The loving persons need this to become accustomed to the minute details of each other’s inner self.  In a profound loving relationship, over time both people become “limbically attuned” to each other.  Why does this happen?  While the reason is simple, it is not necessarily easy.  Wknow good psychotherapists help their patient revise the established structures in the limbic part of their brain. For that to happenthe patient and therapist must work to establish a limbic connection.  Such a limbic connection is already in place between people who love each other, with. both partners in constant limbic exchange. Manifest in the brain structures of the loving personstheir respective Attractor networks are reshaped and a shared way of sensing the world emerges.  The common expression that people often say when they lose a loving romantic partner: “A part of me is gone” comes from this literal transformation of the Attractor network.    

In Review 

The key message in this book:   The type of neural programming we learn during childhood determines how we experience the world emotionally.  By nurturing deep empathic relationships with others, friendsromantic partners, and also psychotherapists we can change this programming for the better.    Actionable advice:   Separate being in love from loving.    Are you consistently surprised when a romantic relationship ends?  Perhaps it’s time for you to do some serious reflection.  Through movies, novels, TV shows, etc., Western culture has confused the feeling of being in love with loving. When the “honeymoon period” inevitably comes to an endthis leads to severe disappointment. Reflect on the kind of “story” you’re telling yourself about a particular relationship. Is your story about eternal love?  It’s time to remind yourself that romantic love is fleeting.    Suggested further reading: Why We Love by Helen Fisher    Helen Fisher’s Why We Love is a sensitive description of the infinite facets of romantic love as well as a report on her latest research. Scientifically grounded, this book is an examination of love that reveals how, why and who we love.  
Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Vulnerability