A General Theory of Love, Part 2: The Science of Attraction
“When love is not madness, it is not love.”
~Pedro Calderon de la Barca
“Love must be as much a light, as it is a flame.”
~Henry David Thoreau
“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
~Zora Neale Hurston
To be loved means being free to be yourself in the presence of another person. It is the mutuality of this experience that we each crave. Somehow we know when it is near, and ache when it is lost. We have all had it: the look, the feeling, and the sense of awe in the presence of the person we are attracted to. But is it more than just the infusion of the catecholamine neurotransmitter, dopamine, or the mammalian hormone oxytocin?
You most likely know that the limbic system is the seat of emotions and it regulates the type, degree and intensity of our feelings. But what you may not know is your limbic system may be trying to detect whom you will love, and who will love you back. Limbic resonance is a term used to describe the feeling of attraction to another.
From the book A General Theory of Love the authors define the term:
Within the effulgence of their new brain, mammals developed a capacity we call limbic resonance — a symphony of mutual exchange and internal 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 multi-layered experience. Instead of seeing a pair of eyes as two bespeckled buttons, 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. Eye contact, although it occurs over a gap of yards, is not a metaphor. When we meet the gaze of another, two nervous systems achieve a palpable and intimate apposition. (p. 16)
The often-used phrase “He lights up when she comes into the room,” is an accurate statement. Love at first sight would more appropriately be labeled “limbic resonance at first contact with the ocular portals.” But the poets, I am certain, would object. What we do know is that when people are attracted to each other there are mutual neural patterns activated in the limbic system — literally, our brains light up. Something happens in the limbic system that lets us know we are in the presence of a potential love.
In part 1, I discussed the parameters of love seeking a type of familiarity. It seems to be that part of our brain remembers and seeks out, usually unconsciously, someone who will emotionally resonate to a person (usually one or both parents) in our family. But evolution demands we seek a better partner than the GPS unit set by our family. Once we leave home our brains and hearts set off in search of something the same, only better. (A fascinating bit of new research suggests that we may always be looking for someone better.)
Implicit memory refers to how we learn and know things we may not know we’ve learned. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Blink is the best-known effort at describing features of this ability. As an example, if I ask you how many windows are in your living room or for you to draw a sketch of your childhood home’s floor plan, you most likely could. You are likely not to have studied that information, but through repetition and implicit memory you would know it. The same is true of the emotional paradigm we learned with our parents. Your mother’s characteristics and your father’s were learned and held onto by the brain. We didn’t study these traits, but they are imprinted on our brain and psyche. This affects intimacy.
Our implicit memory holds onto these emotional patterns and we are drawn to their replication. Another example from A General Theory of Love will demonstrate this:
Take for instance, a young man unhappily single with good reason. For as long as he can remember, his romances travel the same track. First the shock of love with its vertiginous rush and the sweet fire in his spine. Mad mutual devotion follows for weeks. Then the first alarming note: a trickle of criticism from his partner. As their relationship settles in, the trickle becomes a torrent and the torrent a cataract. He is lazy; he is thoughtless; his taste in restraints is banal and his housekeeping habits a horror. When he can’t stand it any longer, he breaks off the relationship. Blessed silence and relief descend. As the weeks go by into months his newfound ease slides over into loneliness. The next woman he dates reveals herself (after a brief time) to be the doppelganger of his recently departed ex. Without a woman, his life is empty; with her, it’s misery. (p. 117)
The pattern was recreated. But how? Here is an illustration. One of my clients (who gave me permission to tell this story) was confused by a dream he had about his spouse.
He told me that in the dream his wife brought him his favorite cake — but it was stale and had some poison in it. She was very happy that she had gone out of her way to make the cake and brought a whole tray of it over to him to taste. He was reluctant to take a piece, but she was insistent. She was proud that she had prepared it. In the dream he knew that the cake was stale and poisoned, but he didn’t want to upset her. When she gleefully offered it to him he reluctantly took a small piece.
As he put it not his mouth he could taste the poison and how stale it was. He gagged and began vomiting as his wife followed him around offering another piece, all the while espousing how proud she was to have prepared it for him.
You don’t need twenty years of schooling to figure that one out. Within the year he divorced her.
His mother had been a woman that gave him what she thought was love, but it had more to do with what she was able to give than what he needed. Love from his mother was never emotionally nurturing (stale cake) and often came with a serious downside (poisonous).
For those of you who saw the movie, Black Swan, and Natalie Portman’s magnificent Oscar-winning performance, the birthday cake scene with her mother — where the dancer is appreciative, but can’t eat much of the cake because she is watching her weight — is not unlike my client. The mother’s rage at having her inappropriate gift rejected starts the wobbly world of the daughter not knowing how to be around her mother because she is not fully accepted. My client was in the same position and chose a wife who activated the same double-binding feelings. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If he eats the cake it could kill him, and it’s stale (a symbol of it being an old pattern.) If he refuses it, it will anger his wife and she will reject him: a double bind. My client’s implicit memory of interactions with his mother formed a prototype that drew him to a similar emotional partner.
When we are truly loved we feel good about ourselves. The presence of someone that can awaken that feeling of being happy with who you are, and happy with whom you are becoming, is worth the all the effort of searching for the right person. But this process often fails to yield the kind of results we want. The implicit memory is coded into the limbic system, and the resonance gets activated.
So how do you transcend looking for someone better and yet different than what you had in the family? Ultimately it is how we feel in the presence of the other that will determine the degree to which we flourish. If a familiar feeling doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves then it will be time for a change: you begin by saying no to what you don’t want.
No more stale, poisonous cake, thank you.
So how do people do it? As Harville Hendrix, best-selling author of Getting the Love You Want might say, they find someone committed to staying conscious of the old patterns and they jointly work to heal one another. Or, to quote the General Theory of Love once more: “In a relationship one mind revives another; one heart changes its partner.” (p. 144) The name for this is limbic revision: the power to heal the people we love as they heal us. More on this in part 3.
This is when love gets good. As Dr. Seuss once said: “You know you’re in love when you don’t want to fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”
Tomasulo, D. (2011). A General Theory of Love, Part 2: The Science of Attraction. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 29, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/04/17/a-general-theory-of-love-part-2-the-science-of-attraction/