Reading/Thinking: A General Theory of Love


I have been strongly influenced by the book A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, all psychiatrists from UCSF, published in 2001.  The four main points of the book are: 1) our brains are affected by those closest to us, particularly during childhood;  2) within intimate relationships, our limbic systems synchronize with one another; 3) our brains can be changed for the better through long-term psychotherapy; 4) American society often frustrates our efforts to satisfy our biological need for connection.

The authors put forward the idea that our nervous systems are not separate or self-contained; beginning in earliest childhood, the area of our brain identified as the limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, and limbic cortex) is affected by those emotionally closest to us.  This is called limbic resonance.  We then synchronize with each other, called limbic regulation, in a way that has profound implications for personality and lifelong emotional health. We need each other to be healthy; according to the authors: “in some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own.” They maintain that various forms of psychotherapy are effective not so much by virtue of their underlying theory or methodology, but to the degree to which the therapist is able to empathically modify set patterns, which they call limbic revision.

Now that scientists can look inside our brains through functional MRI machines, they have been able to see how thoughts, emotions, behavior, and relationships lay down patterns: pathways of brain chemicals. This particular scientific breakthrough has given psychotherapy a new lift and credibility.  Our behavior and relationships form certain pathways in the brain, and our brains love patterns. Whatever those patterns are, they are unique to us, because every brain is different.  That is why psychiatric medication is still a trial and error method: there is no one medication that works for all depression, anxiety, etc. The insight one gains when a client and therapist together recognize a serious life pattern is the first step in being able to change that pattern.

In brief, the author’s theory of love might be best expressed as follows:  science is showing us that love and attachment involve being drawn to what is familiar rather than unfamiliar.  A lifelong familiar pattern is like a freeway: it is so easy to get on it and stay on it.  The new unfamiliar pattern that develops from the awareness and interaction with the therapist is like footprints in the sand.  It is difficult to see the new pattern. The brain is laying down new chemicals as we learn and change, and the repetition of our new patterns inevitably changes us. We used to think that we are born with a certain amount of brain cells, and that life is a process of losing them. Wrong! All new learning, especially the new relational learning that is developed in psychotherapy, is creating new brain cells and laying down new brain pathways. I think this discovery confirms what every psychotherapist knows, or at least hopes: that therapy really does change people.


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