Sunday, July 30, 2006

A General Theory of Love - Lewis, Amini, Lannon

It's rather odd to think that a book of this title could be considered a business read. That was my own thought when I found it on Amazon while searching for Orbiting the Giant Hairball. What caught my eye was the high percentage of people who had purchased this book while looking at other business books. Very odd. And I love very odd things.

As the title suggests, the book takes a close look at where love comes from. Where does it come from? The authors, M.D.s and professors of psychiatry, trace the evolution of the human brain from its reptilian beginnings, to the formation of a limbric brain shared by mammals, to the addition of the neocortical brain that humans alone possess. The physiology of the brain is discussed extensively and the book examines research that has taken place only within the last 20 years. We are told that this is but the very beginning of this type of scientific research into the brain. The discovery, largely by accident, that certain drugs affect brain chemistry, that in turn affect behavior, has ushered in what the authors call the "post-Prozac generation." Neuro-transmitters and neural pathways in the brain have a lot to do with not only what we think, but certainly how we feel.

The first part of the book is heavily technical, but it's important to understand the physiological aspects of brain function before moving onto how that function produces emotion. The authors cover the gamut from attachment theory in infants to the affect of managed healthcare on mental health issues. Part of the book focuses on the critical impact of how we nuture infants, and they draw on many animal studies to support their theories. Recently, I was sent an email about a baby hippo that had formed a relationship with an old turtle following the tsunami in 2004 that left the hippo motherless. Those photos of the hippo and the turtle illustrate the attachment theory described in this book. At every turn and in every chapter, I found that I could understand and believe what these psychiatrists had to say about how the human mind and the human heart function in making us the people we are.

The true test of these theories was over the dinner table with my children. Reading the book was an exercise in self examination. It made me think about how I was raised myself, and also about the kind of mother I have been. My daughter of 20 was the most interested in the book and jumped right into a discussion about the theories I described and their relevance to my life and to hers. We agreed there seemed to be a lot to what these authors have to say about how we experience the world and how that affects who we love and how we love.

I highly recommend the book. Much of this research is new and science has contributed so much to our understanding of the human mind that it is a giant leap forward from the long held tenants of Freudian psychiatry. They tackle broad and far reaching issues that affect Americans culturally: the escalating suicide rate among adolescents; a rise in the number of young violent criminals; the high percentage of people being treated for depression and anxiety; and the impact of outsourcing child rearing on our future generations. Whether you agree with everything they posit or not, it's worth the time to consider their arguments.

If nothing else, I learned something important about myself. To me that is the most rewarding part of reading a good book - to feel that I came away with something I didn't have before. This book is definitely thought provoking and its subject is universal to all that harbor a human heart.

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