Summary of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon

What is love? Everyone has their own explanation but very few of them are scientific. This is because love somewhat defies logic and therefore science. It is the realm more familiar to movies, poets and artists but three psychiatrists wanted to change that. How? Well by combining what they know, both scientifically and from experience with the matter.

Scientifically speaking, love is not what society thinks it is, it’s the main reason why most of us end up disappointed in relationships. The sooner we realise this, the easier it will become to have healthier relationships with those we love. Want to know how?

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • How the human brain and neurotransmitters play a part in our emotions
  • Attractors and emotional development
  • The difference between love and loving

Key lesson one: How the human brain and neurotransmitters play a part in our emotions

Hippocrates was actually one of the first to propose that emotions are produced in the brain. Despite his thoughts on the subject, it took thousands of years before researchers began to truly study the brain and how it plays a part in human behaviour. It also became evident how our brains have evolved over time. 

Scientists refer to the three subsections of the brain as a map of the brain’s evolutionary path. The Reptilian Brain refers to the oldest subsection that is positioned at the top of our spinal cord. This part of the brain controls our basic bodily functions and impulses. The next part is the Limbic Brain that is positioned around the reptilian brain. The limbic brain contains the amygdala which is important in the production of fear. This area of the brain also played an important role in the evolution of mammals. It allows them to feel an attachment to their offspring, unlike reptiles. Finally, the newest section of the brain, which is also the largest, is the Neocortex. This area of the brain is responsible for reasoning, planning and speaking. It plays an important role in decision making.

These parts of the brain play important roles in how emotions are perceived. To be specific, neurotransmitters in the brain influence our sense of love and attachment. There are three neurotransmitters that are of importance here. Firstly, there is serotonin. Serotonin works to relieve anxiety and depression and can even help those suffering from grief and heartache. Interestingly, people in unhappy relationships who cannot break up with their partner due to fear of loss can be aided to do so by an increase of serotonin. This can be found in antidepressants such as Prozac. 

The second neurotransmitter is oxytocin. Oxytocin is the chemical that bonds mother and child. It is present in large quantities at childbirth and plays a part in the feeling of attachment throughout our lives. 

The third and last neurotransmitter involved in love and attachment is opiates. Opiates help relieve physical and emotional pain. The fact that they are able to affect both physical and emotional pain comes from the development of the limbic brain. You see, the brain needed to deal with both attachment and the pain of the loss of it. The brain had a system in place already to deal with physical pain and therefore just adapted it to deal with emotional pain as well. However, this dual function of opiates has a downfall. It may be the reason why some people hurt themselves when they experience emotional pain. The physical pain that one experiences when they cut themselves, for example, sends a signal to the brain to release opiates to deal with the physical pain. As a side effect, it could help alleviate the emotional pain as well.

The actions of these neurotransmitters thus play a crucial role in why we feel the way we do when it comes to love and attachment. 

Key lesson two: Attractors and emotional development

In our brains, there are connections called attractors. These connections develop over time and form part of our memory. They control how we perceive things and therefore how we learn and experience things. In other words, attractors are established through our experiences in life and these experiences form our memories. Likewise, the limbic system also forms its own ‘memories’. Based on our past experiences, it builds an ideal of what attachment should feel like. This ideal, therefore, determines how we experience attachment in all future relationships.

The experiences we have when we are your are thus crucial to our attachments later on in life. As infants, our limbic system is basically a blank slate. We depend on our mothers to teach us how to behave in different scenarios. Just think of a toddler who falls. They usually look up to their mother to gauge her reaction before they themselves react. If the mother panics and or expresses concern, the child will probably cry. However, if the mother smiles and handles the situation calmly, the child is most likely to laugh it off. Therefore, through a mother’s influence, a child builds their experiences and thus the ideal their future relationships will live up to.  A stable and healthy relationship between parent and child is needed for development, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. It is where our empathy comes from. 

However, although a good start is important, it is not where it ends. As adults, we are still social creatures and the experiences we have further modify the emotional attractors we already have. In this way, we continue to grow and change emotionally. This is extremely beneficial especially to those people who did not have parents who were particularly good at handling their emotions. This is why emotional shortcomings can be passed on through generations. Psychotherapy has proven to be quite effective at breaking this cycle and helping adults alter the attractors they have developed. This is called limbic revision and enables therapists to essentially help individuals reprogram their emotional brain. 

Key lesson three: The difference between love and loving

The first thing to understand when it comes to love is that love and loving are two very different things. 

When we are in love, there are three things that we experience. The first is the feeling of having found ‘the one’. We all know this feeling, of being so amazed at how two people can come together so easily and that no one else could ever make us feel this way. However, we also know through experience, that it is quite possible to fall in love more than once in your lifetime. The second feeling is the need to be physically close to your partner. When this need starts to fade, you begin to question your attachment and doubt the love that you feel. Lastly, it is when we feel the need to ignore everything else in our lives if it does not relate to our experience of being in love. In this way, the reality we experience is slightly altered to the reality happening outside our relationship.

As you can tell, these feelings are what will essentially bring a couple together but not necessarily keep them together. It is an introduction or prelude to loving – what is commonly referred to as the ‘honeymoon period’ of relationships. This feeling of being in love is so great when it begins that we begin to believe that it will always feel that way. In fact, culture has made it seem like it will as well if you take into consideration all the romantic movies, shows and novels that exist. This, however, is not how real life works, these stories are not the ideal version of love. It is thus unfortunate that when the feeling of being in love fades, people become disappointed, sad and even depressed. 

The basic difference between being in love and loving is the emotional connection between partners. Loving is always mutual and thus the behaviours of partners reflect this. They know each other intimately and find ways to ensure their personalities and behaviours fit each other. It is thus a more long term intimacy that is built and couples become limbically attuned to one another. It’s the same as how psychotherapy works in limbic revision however now, two people are working together to change their attractors until they become attuned to each other. They thus shape their ideals from their mutual experience of their relationship together. 

The key takeaway from A General Theory of Love is:

Love is often thought of outside of science. It often goes against rational thought and anything logical, so how exactly is our brain controlling what we feel in our hearts? Well, the experiences we have from the time we are born play an important role in conditioning our later interactions. The connections or attractors our brains form when we are little form the basis of what becomes our ideal for love and relationships later in life. If we wish to actively work on these connections when we are older, it is possible by building empathic relationships with psychotherapists and other people. Most importantly, we must learn the important difference between being in love and loving in order to have a healthy and meaningful romantic relationship.

How can I implement the lessons learned in A General Theory of Love: 

Do not build your ideal of a loving relationship on what you see in movies and read in romance novels. If you do, you will be left disappointed time and time again when the honeymoon period of the relationship ends. Be conscious of the fact that romantic love does not last forever and be prepared to work together with your partner to build a loving relationship together.

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