Home Page
Spotlight on Neglect
Contact Us
Ruth Cohn
The Devil's Finest Trick: A Review of
a General Theory of Love
By Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D. and Richard Lannon, M.D

Reviewed by Ruth Cohn

The poet Baudelaire once wrote that the devil’s finest trick is convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Implicit memory has done the same. From A General Theory of Love
Many a time I have been asked by a client, a friend or even a voice in my own head, “Why do I stay in a relationship that is chronically agonizing and difficult? Love shouldn’t be this much work. Why do I choose to stay in something that makes me feel so terrible? Or how does something that starts out feeling so good come to feel so bad?”

These weighty and ambitious questions are the subject of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. A graceful weaving together of literature, attachment theory and neuroscience, the slender volume reads like a poem or a song.

The book begins with a brief and simple introduction to the triune brain. “Our culture, ideology and values have taken us far from acknowledging and honoring, and thus understanding our natural and evolutionarily designed instincts and impulses.” In gentle, lilting language the authors thus create a context in neuroscience and in nature whereby our behavior will make sense.

The reptilian brain controls basic involuntary bodily and survival functions like breathing. The “reptilian brain is the one still functioning in a person who is ‘brain dead.’“ The other two “brains,” the limbic and the neocortical, are perhaps more interesting to psychotherapists. The limbic system, seat of much emotional activity is of particular significance to the subject of love. Much of the book is about this system. The neocortex is the most “advanced” part of the brain, the part that thinks and analyzes consciously. This part of the brain is humbled and often impotent in matters of the heart.

From basic neuroscience the authors make a smooth transition to attachment theory. “With the effulgence of their new brain, mammals developed the capacity we call limbic resonance—a symphony of mutual exchange and adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to each other’s inner states. It is limbic resonance that makes looking into the face of another emotionally responsive creature a multilayered experience…. When we look into the ocular portals to a limbic brain our vision goes deep: the sensations multiply, just as two mirrors placed in opposition create a shimmering ricochet of reflections whose depths recede into infinity…. When we meet the gaze of another, two nervous systems achieve a palpable and intimate apposition…. Relationship is a physiologic process as real and potent as any pill or surgical procedure.”

This is of course what happens in some form, in the earliest attachment. Infants and caregivers attune, the brain and body of the child are regulated by the interactions. Through these interactions the infant’s brain continues to develop and grow. “A mother continuously adjusts her infant’s physiology. One can interrupt a single thread of her influence and disrupt the corresponding physiologic parameter in her baby. When the mother is absent, an infant loses all his organizing channels at once. Like a marionette with its strings cut, his physiology collapses into a huddled heap of despair.”

In neuroscience terms, these earliest patterns of interaction form neural pathways: groups of neurons firing together in a particular way. In attachment or object relations terms, they form internal representations of self and object interactions. These are two modes of expressing the same essential concept, which is not news to us: these early patterns of relationship make deep and lasting impressions. And the nature of the brain is to seek out what is known. “Because human beings remember with neurons, we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear anew what we have heard most often, and think what we have always thought.”

This leads to the mysteries of implicit memory and the questions about love with which we began. Memory of life events, and learned experience are stored in what is known in neuroscience as “explicit memory.” Explicit memory is what we know we know and often remember learning. Many of these known or harkened memories may be the stuff of psychotherapy. It may be episodic memory: memory of autobiographical events; or semantic memory which is learned information. What is defining about explicit memory, which is centered in the brain’s temporal area, is that it is remembered consciously.

The part of the brain that consciously remembers, that recalls experience and remembers learning, is not fully developed until the age of four or five. This is why most of us remember few if any experiences from our earliest years. And yet the infant experiences and learns massive amounts in those first days and years when the brain is rapidly forming. What we learned and experienced then, we may not even know we know. We learn it primarily through the senses and emotions, through the body, and through patterns of interaction that endure.

Like the perfect waiter, psychotherapist or mother, implicit memory is seamless. It fulfills its task, performs its magic with invisible skill. “Implicit memory ensures that camouflaged learning permeates our lives. Behind the familiar bright analytic engine of consciousness is a shadow of silent strength, spinning dazzlingly complicated life into automatic actions, convictions without intellect, and hunches whose reasons follow later or not at all. It is this darker system that guides our choices in love.” The brain seeks the relational patterns that are familiar and continues to replicate them. They may be painful or destructive, but the neurons continue to fire in the familiar way. “The closer a potential mate matches his prototypes, the more enticed and entranced he will be—the more he will feel that here at last with this person, he belongs…. A relationship that strays from one’s prototype is limbically equivelent 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.”

The good news is that the brain is plastic. We can create new neural pathways and change the patterns in the relationships we have and even perhaps in those we might seek. This is obvious to us as psychodynamic psychotherapists who have plugged away for years working with transference and counter transference. Making the original implicit experiences conscious, processing those experience, creating new patterns with cortical participation and intention are where the hope lies, for transforming old and dead end patterns. And yet it is heartening a culmination to the explication of our irrational behavior in love, to learn that our instinct in psychotherapy is on track.

A General Theory of Love is a sweet little tome, filled with good science and sound reassurance. It is endearing and it makes sense. I think it is also a book one can readily recommend to both clients and non-psychologically savvy friends. It is a joyful and whimsical read on a subject that most of us can relate to.

Lewis, Thomas, Lannon, Richard and Amini, Fari, A General Theory Of Love, New York, Vintage, 2001.

Ruth Cohn, MFT is in private practice in the Rockridge area of Oakland. She specializes in individual and couple’s therapy with survivors of childhood trauma, their intimate partners and families. She is an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, also certified in EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.

© 2003