Humans are a clever species. Look at the world we’ve constructed. The very name homo sapiens describes us as wise. But somehow we’ve come to live in a way that is inimical to our nature and destructive of our wellbeing. The organisations in which we work are part of the problem. They are incapable of maintaining bonds of trust with their employees, and obstruct our efforts to sustain our closest relationships.
This is the thesis of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon which attempts to explain the science behind our fundamental need for human connection. Written by three professors of psychiatry, it was published in 2000. In my layman’s reading, its scientific authority has been overtaken by more recent neuroscience. But its date of publication is significant. At the start of a new century, the book aimed to debunk the mythology – whether psychodynamic or behaviourist – which shaped our understanding of emotions through the 20th Century. Insofar as these mythologies remain influential today, A General Theory of Love remains a relevant read. Indeed it seems prescient in its cultural criticism of how Western societies have developed so as to deny our physiological need for attachment, and the social maladies that thereby arise.
The authors draw on a conceptualisation of the human brain as a triune structure comprising the reptilian brain, the limbic brain and the neocortex. This is regarded by contemporary neuroscientists as an obsolete or even inaccurate model but it still does service as a useful simplification of how different clusters of the brain drive us in different ways. The reptilian brain powers our raw instinct for survival. It is characterised by the fight or flight impulse and is a stranger to empathy. The limbic brain is associated with our emotional connections with others. It has a direct bearing on our wellbeing: our physiological health is shaped but the quality of our connections. The neocortex is the most recently evolved part. It is the locus of our cognitive thinking, logic and intellectual knowledge. The authors contend that the domain of the neocortex has come to dominate modern life at the expense of our limbic health.
Neocortical thinking moves fast and jumps to “solutions” quickly. Culturally, we have come to put a premium on its emphasis on knowing. We are easily persuaded by an elegant strategy. But in reality, the authors argue, our drivers are “gloriously illogical” and this human reliance on the intellect blinds us to the exigencies of the limbic system:
“Our culture teems with experts who propose to tell us how to think our way to a better future, as if that could be done. They capitalize on the ease of credibly presuming, without a pause or backward glance, that intellect is running the show. Not so.”
The reason we can’t think our way to a better future is because the limbic brain establishes enduring modes of being which are impervious to mere thought. Where the neocortex relies on explicit conscious memory, the limbic brain leans more towards implicit memory which is largely instinctual. Through the accumulation of limbic attractors – clusters of neural connections that form in response to patterns of experience in relationships – each of us builds an internal reality which determines what love and attachment look like for us. A child who experiences stable and nurturing parenting will have a different understanding of what love is than one who experiences abuse. As these concepts are formed, they determine how we see the world, act in it and relate to others. Our minds map the world onto our limbic internal realities through “the accretion of infinitesimal influence”.
An environment which fosters healthy attachments and social connection is good for us not only as individuals but as a society. People who grow up with dysfunctional limbic attractors perpetuate dysfunction in the world. In the authors’ view of things, here lie the roots of our current epidemics of drug dependence, stabbings and moped muggings.
The risk is more widespread than you might imagine. Prevalent practices in Western society are not conducive to limbic health, for example: childcare (babies sleeping apart from parents; infants looked after by strangers so that we can work); schooling (children institutionalised from the age of four and made to fill their neocortexes with knowledge); and technology use (which promotes addiction and diverts us from human interaction in the real world).
Although our internal emotional models are not easily amenable to change through cognitive will, we are not condemned to live with our limbic inheritance. Our templates for attachment change through a threefold process of limbic resonance (our ability to detect the inner state of others), limbic regulation (how our emotions are shaped by those of people with whom we interact) and limbic revision (by which the internal models of attachment are modified).
It is through this threefold process that helping relationships such as psychotherapy and coaching achieve their results. We grow not in response to a clever insight that appeals to our analytic mind but through being held in relationship by another:
“Emotional impressions shrug off insight but yield to a different persuasion: the force of another person’s Attractors reaching through the doorway of a limbic connection. Psychotherapy changes people because one mammal can restructure the limbic brain of another.”
Practitioners in the helping professions may see themselves as guided by different and diverse cognitive theories or schools. But we are physiological beings and it is the activation through relationship of physiological mechanisms in our limbic system that determines the success of a helping intervention. The model of connection that the practitioner presents to the client is more material to bringing about change in a client than any knowledge content in the relationship.
One of the implications of this is that a client should be very careful who they choose as their coach. A successful coaching intervention entails the client, to some degree, becoming more like their coach. Any results are particular to their unique relationship. Clients would be wise to ascertain whether the coach is attending to his or her own emotional maturity through supervision or psychotherapy.
All of this challenges constructs around helping interventions as a short-term fix. This is especially prevalent with respect to coaching, where contracts are usually limited to a handful of sessions. It’s an illusion to think a lasting impact can be achieved in such a framework. As the authors say, short, sputtering treatments “flout limbic laws and thwart potential”. Senior leaders especially, facing complex and intractable challenges, would benefit from long-term intervention in which the practitioner gets alongside the client potentially for a number of years.
Lewis, Amini and Lannon point to a compelling reason why it’s an urgent necessity for leaders to open to this kind of development: the world of work has become dangerously out of kilter with our human nature. Capitalism has created an environment of disrupted attachments. People routinely move around their countries or between countries for work, becoming detached from their extended families and friendship networks. Isolated and lonely, they form false attachments with the organisations for which they work and often end up betrayed:
“Attachment urges prompt exploitation because companies do not have emotional impulses, and human beings do. A company has no limbic structure predisposing it to recognise its own as intrinsically valuable. People who extend fidelity and fealty to a corporate entity – legally a person and biologically a phantom – have been duped into a perilously unilateral contract. Steeped as they are in limbic physiology, healthy people have trouble forcing their minds into the unfamiliar outline of this reptilian truth: no intrinsic restraint on harming people exists outside the limbic domain.”
Since the authors published the book, our attachments to corporations have probably become deeper – extending to companies not just as a source of actualisation in our working lives but to brands as a source of actualisation in our consuming lives. These attachments may be pleasing in some respects. But they cannot fulfil the needs that we meet through relationships of love and connection with other human beings, even though increasingly they substitute for them.
Simply knowing this will not help address the malaise. We are in a spiral of false attachments. The more we turn to brands and products, particularly technology products with their addictive qualities, the more we cut off from resonant relationships with real people. This, in turn, leads us to invest further in work as a substitute for the emotional capital that is lacking in our lives, which become emptier still as we succumb to the demands of long-hours and always-on productivity. The allure of populism is explicable in this context too: the sick comfort of tribalism and identity politics comforts us as we realise that we’ve been taken for a ride by the deceptive promises of the work bargain.
Individually, we can try to opt out by attempting to rewire our brains to want differently. If we fill our lives with experiences of true attachments, we can find fulfilment that is not commoditised. But as a society, we need to find a way to rewire our organisations and our politics to put human needs at their centre. This calls for a new kind of leadership that isn’t remotely yet in view. By engaging together in limbic connection, leaders and coaches can help bring it into shape.
A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. Available from Amazon.