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Limbic Love

Roger Martin

A General Theory of Love. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. viii + 274 pp. Random House, 2000. $23.95.

The limbic portion of the brain, which governs feeling, considerably predates the cortex, which is the seat of reason. Our love lives are typically dominated by the former, and that's too bad: In this case, older is definitely not wiser.

The limbic system is responsible for that Velcro collision called "falling in love." If our limbic patterning is off when it comes to love, we can suffer endless trouble, write psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon in A General Theory of Love. Dreams of falling in love and living happily ever after spin out of "the airy regions of the cortex, which drafts its scripts using imagination, logic and will." But the gnarly plots of the limbic brain are more likely to prevail: "There one can read love stories like this: Boy meets girl, who (reminiscent of his mother) is needy and stifles his independence; they struggle bitterly over the years and resent each other a little more every day."

Why do we tend to repeat our errors in choosing whom to love? Because the qualities of character, personality and behavior that make us go gaga over somebody, called Attractors by the authors, are etched into psyche so early and indelibly: "That concentrated knowledge whispers to a child from beneath the veil of consciousness, telling him what relationships are, how they function, what to anticipate, how to conduct them." Throughout our lives, we reach, time and again, for that old familiar love—the kind we knew in our families, the kind that came our way, for better or worse, from mother, father, siblings, nanny. These blueprints lead some of us into the arms of those who yawn and look at their watches, or pick on us, or praise us and belittle us in the same breath, or reject us cruelly—or even hit. Like chocolate Labradors (who also have limbic systems), we may cross paths with folks who would be kinder to us than those we ultimately choose, who would be quicker with treats, fonder of walks. But we pooh-pooh the nice guys: We sniff a little and trot off, uninterested. Later, over merlot, we lament to friends: "Geez, he's a swell guy, but the chemistry's just not there."

When the chemistry is there, we are in love, a state that "twists together three high-tensile strands: a potent feeling that the other fits in a way that no one has before or will again, an irresistible desire for skin-to-skin proximity, and a delirious urge to disregard all else." Loving is limbically different from being in love. Loving is "synchronous attunement and modulation. As such, adult love depends critically upon knowing the other." Loving is what happens after the limbic thrill is gone, and it's more substantial than that thrill: "In a dazzling vote of form over substance, our culture fawns over the fleetingness of being 'in love' while discounting the importance of 'loving.'"

There is hope. Limbic revision, permitting wiser choices in love, is possible. Therapy can help. The particular brand is less important than the therapist's making a good limbic imprint on the patient and changing the patient's taste in partners. Unfortunately, limbic revision takes time, more of it than many managed-care packages will permit, the authors say. Luckily, psychotropic medications can also abet change. A General Theory of Love tells us that rewiring a broken limbic system isn't simple. As brains age, they lose their plasticity. The moral of the story: We need to love our young with care and thought, for the flavor of love we provide at the outset is the flavor they'll seek all their lives.—Roger Martin, Center for Research, University of Kansas

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