I just finished reading A General Theory of Love, and I liked it. A lot. Most popular books about the brain and behavior are either written by scientists, who use references to everyday life and popular culture to enliven what they seem to fear will be misunderstood or boring, or by popularizing researchers like Malcolm Gladwell, who interview experts around a theme and then write about it. Both of these approaches can make excellent reading, but A General Theory of Love stands out by fitting into neither mold. Instead, the authors are hard scientists who believe that science is not yet able to explain the mysteries of the human heart unaided. Thus, when they include snippets of poetry and references to music, it is not for the sake of style, but for the sake of fully exploring the material. In the preface, they write, “During the long centuries when science slumbered, humanity relied on the arts to chronicle the heart’s mysterious ways. That accumulated wisdom is not to be disdained,” and thus won me over.
A General Theory of Love fully delivers on that promising beginning, and kept me fascinated throughout. One of the central ideas of the book is that the human body and mind is not a closed loop system. It turns out that we can not fully self-regulate – we need close connections to others (both physically and emotionally) in order to maintain our must basic bodily equilibrium over long periods of time. People literally need other people. I don’t know about you, but to me, this was HUGE. In our rational, logical culture it is all too easy to buy into the idea that our emotions and interpersonal connections are nice, but are really the icing on the cake of life – less important than, say, food, shelter, clothing, or higher education. But it turns out that those connections are not just the icing – they are the icing, the cake, the plate, and the fork we eat them with. When we loose a loved one and say that we feel like a part of ourselves is missing, we are expressing a literal truth, in that our selves are not bounded entirely by our bodies and minds, but are in some ways a complex interplay between our minds, and the minds of those closest to us.
I believe that on a certain level we already know this to be true. But we’re so used to the dominant culture telling us otherwise that only the strongest and purest of heart can hold onto the knowledge. And if it is true – if we really do require others around us on a biological level – how does that change the way you view your closest relationships? The way you interact with your loved ones? Since reading this book, I have begun to view time spent with my husband as something vital to my (and his) health, as opposed to simply being something I enjoy doing when I have the time. I’ve always prioritized my time with him, but now I have also been trying harder to be fully present with him, rather than half-listening while I’m doing (or thinking about) something else.
What about you – how might this knowledge influence your behavior and relationships?