Since writing the piece on A General Theory of Love (New York: Random House, 2001) by the three psychiatrists, T. Lewis, F. Amini, R. Lannon, and then re-reading the book, my mind has been teeming with a mass of thoughts, questions, and ideas. And gradually these have been getting sorted out into what a chess player familiar with the teaching of Alexander Kotov, might term a number of branches making up the “Tree of Thought”. Now that I realise that the book describes what most call neuro-science, it is obvious that I am catching up with what many therapists and carers already take for granted. So, if you are one of these, please forgive me a beginner’s excitement.
Just to re-cap. These three retired psychiatrists and academics brought their combined wisdom and case studies together to describe what they believe to be a better foundation for psychiatry and psychotherapy, than Freudian psychoanalysis, Skinner-dominated behavioural psychology, or the use of medication respectively. There is a simple description of the three primary parts of the human brain: reptilian (wrapped around the top of the spinal chord); limbic (coming between this and the third part), and the neo-cortical (which is the outer part). The first deals with self-protection and regulation of the body functioning largely by means of reflexes. The second comprises patterns of neural networks established unconsciously early in a child’s life and shaping how the growing person sees, processes and deals with the challenges of the stream of knowledge, data, experiences and emotions that accompany human life in the real world. The third part is where practical decisions, language, logic, mathematics are concentrated.
Attachment theory is taken to be at the heart of how the limbic patterns of thought, reaction and processing are learned and established in the earliest years of a child’s life, including the time in the mother’s womb. And the trio argue that love is not only a valid word, but the only one that will do, when seeking to understand what genuine therapy and therapeutic care are needed, when a person is struggling with their emotions, feelings and fears, as a result of childhood traumas, separation, loss and insensitive and inappropriate relationships with parents, and/or significant others.
With that summary in mind, here are some of the branches of my thought.
The unconscious in human thinking and emotions is, for me, axiomatic. The evidence is as I have seen and witnessed it, overwhelming. Freudian theory has helped establish this, but is profoundly suspect, and generally held to lack an objective and verifiable foundation. The concept of the “shadow” in Jungian theory and practice has been rather more helpful in my own practice, and I wonder how it might relate to the limbic patterning of neural networks. (There is a tantalising sentence on page 192 of the chapter entitled A Walk in the Shadows, which hints at a possible connection without developing it: “Every solid object casts a shadow, and the architecture of the human mind is no exception”.)
This leads the authors to consider what they call “culture”. They are critical of contemporary American norms and expectations (although much of what they describe applies more widely in the world), but do not discuss how this relates to the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious. It seems to me that such an exploration might provide a fruitful way of enriching our understanding of limbic functioning. As someone who has taught cross-cultural courses in child development, I have been struck, by both the differences and also the commonalities between unconscious (taken for granted) assumptions around the world. If it takes a village to raise a child (well), then there is a lot of data worldwide on villages!
I wondered too whether many of the syndromes and conditions that we now speak of commonly, such as Autistic, Aspergers, ADHD, Dementia, Alzheimers and so on, have been studied with reference to the way neural networks have been established (whether genetically, culturally, or in development within family and community). Please understand that I am in a stage of overload, and hoping that others will come to my aid with chapters and verse!
I have long been sceptical of behavioural psychology, not in the specific areas in which it can be shown to be relevant and effective, but in those deep-seated, often subconscious conditions and patterning where it cannot. To seek to modify conscious thoughts and behaviour while leaving limbic mal-functioning (the writers are willing to talk of “bad” parenting) unattended, has always seemed to me to be at best wilfully ignorant, and at worst, a dereliction of professional medical duty.
And the same goes for medication. In my experience it clearly has, a role to play in a number of psychological conditions. But if limbic functioning is to be addressed it will ultimately require long-standing, and unconditional love, whether in family or professionals. I recall giving a paper when I became president of the Social Care Association in 1984. I talked of Korzcak and the way his sacrificial concern for the orphans in his care in the Warsaw Ghetto challenged me. More than one member of SCA spoke to me afterwards to say that they felt this was going too far in a professional organisation. But if it is at times necessary, surely we cannot simply deny it? And if professionals cannot commit themselves to love a client appropriately, then this means that they must redouble their efforts to identify, encourage and nurture those who will.
A General Theory of Love refuses to sit on the fence (this is often the blessing of the writings of those who are retired!): humans are wired to give and receive love, and yet contemporary cultures, and professionals seem to often almost anything but love. They write that the “unimpeachable verdict of research is that “love matters in the life of a child” (page 199). And in saying this they are aware of the role not only of parents and the nuclear family, but of kith, kin, community, peers, and culture itself. What for example might be the difference if our culture genuinely encouraged to “love our neighbours as ourselves”, I wonder? When unsatisfied, this inbuilt longing (need) that is hard-wired into us all will seek out both consciously and unconsciously substitutes. They include gangs, sects, companies and corporations (this is a very interesting section in the book, pages 214-219), and the acting out of despair and anger in self-harm and the injury and killing of others.
This leads me, at this embryonic stage of my development in this whole area of thought, to consider what practical steps parents and carers with a therapeutic understanding and intent might take. There have been many on offer and in evidence through the ages, and across cultures. But those that come to mind most readily here and now mostly seem to occur in my book, The Growth of Love. It is just that now so many new links have been forged, and reasons emerged. So let me suggest that we settle for nothing less than love, and therefore using the word, “love” in all talk about caring, healing, and teaching. And that quasi-scientific (“empirically-demonstrated” and “driven”) language is tempered with the humility appropriate for the partial knowledge and understandings that we have of the human heart (the limbic patterns). The poets, the musicians, the artists, the mystics have opened doors for us that we do well to look through, even if we cannot enter.