Kisses and Limbic Resonance, a Foolish Feeling Called Love

A General Theory of Love , by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D. Random House, 274 pages, $22.95.

The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex , by David M. Buss, Ph.D. The Free Press, 258 pages, $25.

How ignorant and misguided we were, the girls of my generation, naïvely supposing that all the instruction we would ever need on the subject of romance was contained in the deceptively simple and (as it turned out) profound lyrics of Betty Everett’s “Shoop Shoop Song”: “If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.” Did we honestly imagine that the mysteries of sex and attraction could be solved by something so subjective and unscientific as the touch of some guy’s lips? No wonder our love lives kept crashing and burning! What in the world were we thinking?

Not much, and not very clearly, according to the authors of A General Theory of Love , a new book that attempts to sort out the tangled mysteries of the heart and send our feelings zipping along the proper neural pathways. Or perhaps the trouble was (and I often find this a problem, don’t you?) that I and my clueless girlfriends were simply using the wrong parts of our brains. For according to the book’s authors, three California psychiatrists, the secret of love has nothing to do with smooching, and everything to do with brain function; the answer was never in his kiss, but rather in his limbic resonance.

It’s taken me some time and effort to get this right, and perhaps the good M.D.’s–Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon–will cut me some slack if I confess that I barely squeaked through eighth-grade earth science. But what the book appears to be saying is that love–our ability to feel, receive and show it–originates in our limbic brain, which is located somewhere between (speaking in terms of evolution, not physiology) our reptilian brain (fight or flight!) and the neocortex, which enables us to do the really complicated, abstract stuff, like slicing our Metrocard through the slot and pushing through the turnstile.

The emotionally sensitive limbic brain is what we share in common with that poor experimental monkey so easily tricked into believing that the cuddly wire-mesh and terrycloth construction is his mother. Of course, the difference is that the human baby eventually notices that Wire-Washcloth Mom is not exactly smiling back, or exuding lovingkindness, which augurs badly–terribly–for the human baby’s future. Because unless those all-important love channels are opened up early and correctly, our wiring gets severely scrambled, our love neurons misfire all over the place, limbic-brain chaos ensues, and the final result (just give me the bad news straight, Doc) is a lifetime of really lousy, neurotic relationships: “The limbic brain contains its emotional Attractors, encoded early in life. Primal bias then forms an integral part of the neural systems that view the emotional world and conduct relationships. If the early experience of a limbic network exemplifies healthy emotional interaction, its Attractors will serve as reliable guides to the world of workable relationships. If a diseased love presents itself to a child, his Attractors will encode it and force his adult relationships into that Procrustean bed.”

Got that? You sure? Good. And now for the (slightly) more optimistic prognosis. Even the most limbically twisted can get their Attractors ironed out and reprogrammed. No doubt, you’ve intuited the solution by now–and, as the authors suggest, you’ve already shredded all those useless self-help manuals. And how exactly are you going to drag yourself out of that nasty, lonely Procrustean bed and get those neurons back on track? That’s right, you’ve guessed the answer: therapy, and lots of it: “Revising limbic Attractors takes vast vistas of time–three, five years, sometimes more. People blanch when therapists speak of their profession’s yawning temporal gulch. That dismay is understandable: Therapy is as time-consuming and costly as a college education. But, to paraphrase Harvard’s president, Derek Bok, those put off by the expense of education may find ignorance an even costlier indulgence.”

Probably it’s bad manners to point out (as long as we’re slinging around terms like ignorance) that Derek Bok hasn’t been Harvard’s president for a good many years. And probably it’s worse manners to object to these well-meaning psychiatrists’ efforts to reassure the unloved–all alone by the telephone on this wintry Valentine’s Day–that they are not unlovable, just limbically challenged. My quarrel with A General Theory of Love is not its windy pomposities, the unintelligible, Pac-Man-like diagrams designed to illustrate the paths that our love neurons travel, or the prose style so convoluted and opaque that any reader not gifted with the patience of a saint will probably choose to just give up and go back to thinking of love as an insoluble mystery.

I object, rather, to the lamentably retro eagerness with which Drs. Lewis, Amini and Lannon trace all this limbic dysfunction back to Mom–the primal neuron scrambler. Every so often the word “parents” is thoughtfully substituted for “mother” but essentially, it’s pretty clear who’s at fault when the adult is still paying the price (big bad love trouble) for maternal chilliness: “Babies of responsive mothers developed into grade-schoolers who were happy, socially competent, resilient, persistent, likable, and empathic with others…. Infants reared by the cold mothers grew up to be distant, difficult-to-reach kids who were hostile to authority, shunned togetherness, and wouldn’t ask for comfort, particularly when they were hurt. They often had a mean streak.”

After pages of this sort of thing–which I’d deluded myself into thinking had been phased out along with prefrontal lobotomy and the casual use of electroshock–it’s not exactly surprising to hear the doctors ruminate on the possibility that day care is irreparably damaging our children. And maybe it’s just my own inability to get fully in touch with my limbic brain, but every time emotions are presented as being superior to, and more trustworthy than, intellect and judgment, I flash on choice scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will –all that passionate intensity goose-stepping along my own neural pathways.

Meanwhile, anyone who wants a second opinion on all this can consult The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex , by David Buss, Ph.D., who is less interested in neurobiology than in lipstick on the collar and unexplained charges on the credit card bill. Mr. Buss’ revelations–men are more jealous when their mate has sex with someone else, women are more threatened when a husband’s emotions are involved–will come as a surprise only to those who have spent the last decades on another planet: the Planet Without Women’s Magazines. Mr. Buss believes that jealousy is an adaptive strategy, a useful protective mechanism that helps us preserve our emotional investments and our domestic security. And interestingly, his case studies suggest that a partner who suspects a mate is cheating is often correct, that certain indicators (an air of distraction, a decrease or increase in sexual interest) warn us when our marriages and love relationships are at risk. All of which proves that Betty Everett was right all along, it’s just as we always thought: “If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.”