why this book
I used to spend a lot of time and energy being “in love” with people. There is almost no window of time in my life that I was okay being with my self and had no one to consume my thoughts and emotions. On hindsight maybe it was necessary for my survival: having an ongoing fantasy that I’ll meet “The One” and live happily ever served as a good enough distraction or hope from the depressing reality of my life.
But in reality it made me a miserable person. I was always pining for someone. A friend made a joke that the objects of my affection were always the emotionally unavailable ones. I reacted defensively to it of course, but years later when I developed more maturity to think about it, I realised he was right.
Reading “A general theory of love” changed this trajectory dramatically. It explained in a compelling narrative intertwined with the neuroscience of why I kept “falling in love” with these unavailable people. I was attracted to unavailable people because this was how my brain recognised “love”.
It sounds screwed up but if we think about it, our brain basically learns from the inputs that it is given. Why would it automatically know what the healthy version of love looks like, especially if we have never encountered it before? Even the media we consume reinforces this narrative that “true love” is always this person rescuing the other, or that one person is always pining for the other. Movies don’t talk about the reality of relationships: that compatibility and alignment of life values are key. Love depicted in media is always this magical process where everything will work out because it is “meant to be”. Life doesn’t work like that, that is probably why the rate of divorce is so high.
I have this naive thought that writing these book reviews will provide some insights to people who don’t have time to read the entire book, or they may be encouraged to read it if they have never encountered it. But maybe it is enough reason to wish to document something important to me.
the premise of the book
The book attempts to explain the neuroscience behind what we think of as “love”, which is an all-encompassing term inclusive of the nurturance young human beings receive, as well as the romantic attraction that occurs between two people. It also tells us that this romantic attraction is not as romantic as we tend to imagine, it is deeply influenced by how we are nurtured. This is largely because of our:
We have a primal part of the brain called the limbic system, the part that was there before we evolved the ability to reason. It is responsible for our primal drives and autonomic functions like hunger, flight or fright, territorial instincts, sexual urges etc. It is the reason why we find it so difficult to overcome our natural instincts – that part of the brain does not respond to logic:
Because people are most aware of the verbal, rational part of their brains, they assume that every part of their mind should be amenable to the pressure of argument and will. Not so. Words, good ideas, and logic mean nothing to at least two brains out of three.
This has stark implications of how much control we think we have over our emotional life:
A person cannot direct his emotional life in the way he bids his motor system to reach for a cup. He cannot will himself to want the right thing, or to love the right person, or to be happy after a disappointment, or even to be happy in happy times. People lack this capacity not through a deficiency of discipline but because the jurisdiction of will is limited to the latest brain and to those functions within its purview. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.
And in case we equate primitive to being useless, that part of the brain is actually essential to what we identify as part of the human experience:
Remove a mother hamster’s whole neocortex and she can still raise her pups, but even slight limbic damage devastates her maternal abilities. Limbic lesions in monkeys can obliterate the entire awareness of others.
limbic regulation: how another’s presence can affect us
Key to our experience of love, nurturance and social contact is a process that the limbic system regulates — limbic regulation. Our nervous systems and bodily functions are impacted by another person’s presence more than we think:
We call this mutually synchronizing exchange limbic regulation. The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites. In a closed-loop design, each body would self-monitor levels and self-administer correctives, keeping its solitary system in continuous harmonious balance.
A second person transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function, and more—inside the body of the first. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated. Neither is a functioning whole on his own; each has open loops that only somebody else can complete. Together they create a stable, properly balanced pair of organisms.
This has profound implications to how we think of our selves as social creatures. We are social not just on a emotional level — that we prefer the company of other people to combat our deep inset loneliness, but we can be physiologically regulated by another human being close to us:
Adults remain social animals: they continue to require a source of stabilization outside themselves. That open-loop design means that in some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own—not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be. This prospect is disconcerting to many, especially in a society that prizes individuality as ours does. Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them.
the physiological effects of dysregulation
…and the health cost of being isolated and not regulated is high:
Cortisol levels rise sixfold in some mammals after just thirty minutes of isolation.
…with the effects on children being much more pronounced because they have not learnt to self-regulate:
Lengthy parental absence deprives a child of limbic regulation. If he is very young, losing his parents upends his physiology. Prolonged separations even can be fatal to an immature nervous system, as vital rhythms of heart rate and respiration devolve into chaos. Sudden infant death is increased fourfold in the babies of mothers who are depressed—because without emotional shelter, infants die. The heart rhythms of securely attached babies are steadier than those with insecure relationships, just as the breathing teddy bear regularizes the respiration of premature infants. Synchronicity with parents (or, in a pinch, with another reliable rhythmic source) becomes the baby’s developing physiologic strength.
I am not sure how many people know this, because I was shocked when I read about it, that infants need touch or they may die, as some emperor in the 13th century found out because he was doing some language experiment – he instructed mothers and nurses to take care of a group of infants’ physiological needs like feeding and bathing, but not speak or touch them. The experiment was terminated prematurely because:
all of the infants died before uttering a single word. The emperor had stumbled upon something remarkable: that “children could not live without clap-pings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”
…and adults are not spared from the negative effects of isolation either:
Children aren’t the only ones whose bodies respond to the intricacies of loss: cardiovascular function, hormone levels, and immune processes are disturbed in adults subjected to prolonged separation.
how much free will do we really have?
Society likes to tell us that we can choose to be whoever we want and attain our goals despite whatever happened in our past. We are told that the individual has to be entirely responsible for their choices. But research has shown that we are not only psychologically affected by our upbringing, our physical health is profoundly impacted by what happens during our childhood too (this is also discussed in another pivotal book, Why Zebras don’t get ulcers):
Full-grown, these monkeys are living proof of limbic regulation’s enduring power: they are timid, clingy, subordinate, and clumsy in their efforts to establish ties to other monkeys. The brains of these animals evidence permanent alterations in neurochemistry. Just because their mothers once lived under a pall of uncertainty, these adult animals show lifelong changes in levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. With their vulnerability to anxiety and depression, their social awkwardness and failures to attach as adults, these monkeys exhibit a close animal counterpart to the multifaceted misery that in human beings is labeled neurotic.
We seem to associate a child’s need for attention negatively without knowing that there are physiological reasons why they are needy – so many of us are raised to be “independent”. How many of us in my and earlier generations have memories of hugs or any physical affection from our parents?
Reward a child’s distress with attention, they said (and say today), and you increase the probability of recurrence. A child left alone at night, with no human presence to “reward” him, eventually stops crying and makes do without. But sleep is not a reflex, like the canine salivation a flank steak provokes. The dozing adult brain rises and descends through half a dozen distinct neural phases every ninety minutes, in gradually lengthening symphonic movements that culminate in morning wakefulness. Sleep is an intricate brain rhythm, and the neurally immature infant must first borrow the patterns from parents.
Since our neurochemistry has an outsized impact on how we behave, the health of our brains will determine our future too, because our brains will have issues regulating itself to shocks and stress because it never learnt to self-regulate:
The child of emotionally balanced parents will be resilient to life’s minor shocks. Those who miss out on the practice find that in adulthood, their emotional footing pitches beneath them like the deck of a boat in rough waters. They are incomparably reactive to the loss of their anchoring attachments—without assistance, they are thrown back on threadbare resources. The end of a relationship is then not merely poignant but incapacitating.
Imagine two different kids: one is emotionally balanced, the other always on tenterhooks. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to imagine their trajectories as adults. One takes on challenges as they come, the other avoids or suffers from meltdowns when they encounter difficulty. Who is going to thrive?
If we can’t regulate ourselves each time we encounter stressful situations, our body will keep releasing stress hormones to help us cope. What can the chronic release of these stress hormones cause? Yes, all the chronic health conditions we can think of in this world: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc. Imagine being chronically ill not because of the decisions we make as adults, but because of how we are being care-given as infants. This must change the way we think of inequality and the poverty cycle. I also resent the way we talk about resilience like it is some character-driven virtue, when in our society it is the outcome of psychological privilege. It should not be a privilege, but a natural outcome of healthy upbringing that should be more available than it is now.
behind our romantic attraction
The primal part of our brain not only affects how our nervous system regulates itself, it also hugely determines who we love, because as young human beings our brains starts learning according to what we are exposed to:
If a parent loves him in the healthiest way, wherein his needs are paramount, mistakes are forgiven, patience is plentiful, and hurts are soothed as best they can be, then that is how he will relate to himself and others. Anomalous love—one where his needs don’t matter, or where love is suffocating or autonomy intolerable—makes its ineradicable limbic stamp. Healthy loving then becomes incomprehensible.
Based on these exposures when we’re young, we form these imprints – the book calls them prototypes – of what love should look like. And this is the part of the book that hit me the most: that we would rather fall in love with people that make us miserable than to feel lonely:
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. Consider the young man described in the last chapter wrestling with the present-day reenactment of the long-ago love with his fiery, critical mother. As an adult, he faces a binary universe. If he connects with a woman, she turns out to be his mother’s younger clone. But a supportive woman leaves him exasperatingly empty of feeling—no spark, no chemistry, no fireworks.
…and that we would probably ignore the best partner on paper because our brains simply cannot consider the possibility of a healthy dynamic as love:
You can’t tell someone with faulty Attractors to go out and find a loving partner—from his point of view, there are none. Those who could love him well are invisible. Even if the clouds parted and a perfectly compassionate and understanding lover descended from heaven on a sunbeam to land at his feet, his mind would still be tuned to another sort of relationship; he still wouldn’t know what to do.
So now we not only have shitty regulation that causes frequent emotional meltdowns, we also have shitty health because of our frequent stress, and to top it all off we keep wanting to be in shitty relationships. What a life.
the possibility of healing
Our brains learns and stores, that is why we carry neurological baggage. But thankfully the brain is plastic, meaning it can learn to have new neurological connections at any time. This is the hope. The book recommends therapy as a source of healing:
The mind-body clash has disguised the truth that psychotherapy is physiology. When a person starts therapy, he isn’t beginning a pale conversation; he is stepping into a somatic state of relatedness.
…but I guess therapy is not the only way we can be in this somatic state. it is just that it is difficult to find another human being who is able to regulate us in a healthy way, especially when like the book mentioned earlier, we wouldn’t know what is healthy even if it appears in front of us. Sadly I am personally not sure how many of these psychologically healthy human beings actually exists because of how society is designed. But perhaps some of us will have such luck:
A person with maladaptive Attractors can encounter another by chance who will teach him what he needs to learn. The instructor fate provides, whether husband or wife, brother, sister, or friend, is often amiably unmoved by the other’s problematic emotional messages. Through the reach of their relationship and the utility of his relative imperviousness, he can gently and incrementally dissuade his student from headlong flight down paths that terminate in sorrow.
love is not just love
We think of love as just an emotion, but it is effectively a regulation mechanism for us:
Because loving is reciprocal physiologic influence, it entails a deeper and more literal connection than most realize. Limbic regulation affords lovers the ability to modulate each other’s emotions, neurophysiology, hormonal status, immune function, sleep rhythms, and stability. If one leaves on a trip, the other may suffer insomnia, a delayed menstrual cycle, a cold that would have been fought off in the fortified state of togetherness.
…the effects of such mutual regulation can be profound:
Love is simultaneous mutual regulation, wherein each person meets the needs of the other, because neither can provide for his own. Such a relationship is not 50-50—it’s 100-100. Each takes perpetual care of the other, and, within concurrent reciprocity, both thrive. For those who attain it, the benefits of deep attachment are powerful—regulated people feel whole, centered, alive. With their physiology stabilized from the proper source, they are resilient to the stresses of daily life, or even to those of extraordinary circumstance.
…as I myself has discovered since meeting my partner. This is clearly visible in my biometrics – she hugs me to sleep every night but we do separate after a while because of changes in our sleeping positions – look at the dramatic spike in my heart rate variability in the first portion of my sleep:
the impact this book has on me
Reading this book has allowed me to look at my past with much greater clarity. Why I was in the relationships I was, why I had certain behavioural patterns. Awareness is not a magic pill – it cannot reverse decades of negative patterns, but it may set forth the path we can take towards healing. I also developed way more compassion for myself and other people. It is difficult to love our selves when we can be so problematic, I really disliked myself because of the extremity of my emotions and the intensity of my meltdowns. Meltdowns are a nicer word for a bad temper I guess.
But we look a people’s temperaments as their inborn character or their inability to exert control over themselves without realising so much of it is dependent on their neurological circuitry. We are controlled by our brains – this is simply indisputable by current science, but somehow even in 2023 we still magically expect ourselves to be magical creatures who can miraculously overcome our very primal impulses and imprints and direct our will at will. This is not just a philosophical rant. It is a depressing awareness of how much society is set up against the nature of ourselves. Our systems, laws and the way we treat people are based on the belief that we are free to make our choices. But are we?
I know I just said awareness is not a magic pill, but I magically stopped being attracted to people after reading this book. It is as though knowing what truly powers attraction made me truly cynical about it. The feelings I associated with romance is now being associated negatively with my brain’s desire to seek out the familiarity of an unhealthy dynamic.
Strangely months after reading this book I met my current partner, whose dynamic with me is very unlike what I had with other people, so I was honestly very confused. But my new-found knowledge gave me enough time and space to let the relationship unfold. She was the first person to be emotionally available to me, we did not engage in power battles and we fought with increasing honesty instead of passive aggression. Till today I believe I wouldn’t have fallen in love with her if I had not read this book first. I was used to feeling like the oxygen has been sucked out of me by the absence of another person – that suffering I associated with romantic love – but she made me feel like I was swimming in an ocean full of oxygen.
I know you may think that choosing that ocean is the obvious choice, but people like me like being in oxygen-deprived chambers because the suffering makes us feel alive, like we are fighting for something. Maybe that was my experience as an infant, to keep fighting for attention – that was probably love in its earliest form to me.
the other uncomfortable implications of this book
Because we are creatures in need of love, there is so much emphasis and responsibility placed on parents, especially mothers. I had felt uncomfortable sharing some quotes from the book because I recognise that motherhood is already an impossible task. Heck, just trying to be a regular human being is difficult.
But herein lies the problem: we do not have systems in place to support the growth of healthy human beings. The sole responsibility should not just fall on the mother or the parents. It takes a village to raise a child, and this really hits home after comprehending the lessons of this book.
I have also left out a lot of the book especially its discussion on the attachment theory, because the book is so rich that it is impossible for me to cover everything. I encourage you to read the book in its entirety because we cannot fully understand its context by cherry-picking some quotes. Reading is a very personal experience and it will unfold differently with the layers of every individual’s inner world.
writing this review
This is a review I have been wanting to write for years, but didn’t have the capacity to sift through all my highlights and consolidate them into a meaningful manner. I’ve finally made an attempt with Obsidian and also I’m learning to chunk my writing sessions better. If I write more of these reviews I guess it would mean the process is working.
Done is better than perfect, so I am aware that this piece would probably read better with more sittings and more editing, but for now I think it is more important for me to have breadth than depth. So I am going treat this piece like a living document that I can always come back and edit if I want to. I hope some people will still find it meaningful enough.
Attachment security continues to be a powerful predictor of life success. The securely attached children have a considerable edge in self-esteem and popularity as high school students, while the insecurely attached are proving excessively susceptible to the sad ensnarements of adolescence—delinquency, drugs, pregnancy, AIDS. Almost two decades after birth, a host of academic, social, and personal variables correlate with the kind of mother who gazed down at her child in the cradle.
A friend recommended me this book, and my life was changed permanently, the way I love and want to be loved, the way I see and understand people.