Emotional Resonance – Growth, Development, Survival
We will take a far-too-rapid trip through “A General Theory of Love” by Lewis, Armini, and Lannon, three psychiatrists at University of California San Francisco (UCSF), to gain some insight into matters of love, connection, and emotional resonance and how they relate to mutual empowerment. They write:
We searched, in short, for the science of love. Finding no such system in our own field, we went hunting in other disciplines. Before we were through scavenging, we had gathered together elements from neurodevelopment, evolutional theory, psychopharmacology, neonatology, experimental psychology, and computer science. (p. 12)
A revolutionary paradigm assembled itself around us, and we have remained within it ever since. Within that structure we found new answers to the questions most worth asking about human lives: what are feelings, and why do we have them? What are relationships, and why do they exist? What causes emotional pain, and how can it be mended – with medications,
with psychotherapy, with both? What is therapy, and how does it heal? How should we configure our society to further emotional health? How should we raise our children, and what should we teach them? (p. 13)
Long before science existed, sharp-eyed men and women told each other stories about how
people are, stories that have never lost their power to enchant and instruct. The purpose of using science to investigate human nature is not to replace those stories but to augment and deepen them. Robert Frost once wrote that too many poets delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. The principle is mirrored in the study of the brain, where too many experts, out of plain fear, avoid mentioning love.
We think the heart is dangerous and must be left in. The poetic and the veridical, the proven and the unprovable, the heart and the brain – like charged particles of opposing polarity – exert their pulls in different directions. Where they are brought together the result is incandescence. (p. 15)
…common sense suggests that the human brain is likely to be unitary and harmonious. It isn’t.
A homogeneous brain might function better, but humans don’t have one. Evolved
structures answer not to the rules of logic but only to the exigencies of the long chain of survival victories.
Dr. Paul MacLean, an evolutionary neuroanatomist and senior research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, has argued that the human brain is comprised of three distinct
sub-brains, each the product of a separate age in evolutionary history. The trio intermingles and communicates, but some information is inevitably lost in translation because the subunits differ in their functions, properties, and even their chemistries. His neuroevolutionary finding of the three-in-one, or triune, brain can help explain how some of love’s anarchy arises from ancient history. (p. 21)
The oldest or reptilian brain is a bulbous elaboration of the spinal cord. This brain houses vital control centers – neurons that prompt breathing, swallowing, and heartbeat, and the visual tracking system a frog relies on to snap a dancing dragonfly out of the air. The startle center is
here, too, because a swift reaction to abrupt movement or noise is the principal reason animals have brains at all. (p. 22)
Humanity’s second or limbic brain drapes itself around the first with a languid ease. (p. 24)… As
mammals split off from the reptilian line, a fresh neural structure blossomed with their skulls. This brand new brain transformed not just the mechanics of reproduction but also the organismic orientation toward offspring. Detachment and disinterest mark the parental attitude of the typical reptile, while mammals can enter into subtle and elaborate interactions with their young. (p.25)
The neocortex…is the last and, in humans, the largest of the three brains. (p.26)… Neocortical size has grown in mammals of recent origin, so that dogs and cats have more, and monkeys, more still. In human beings, the neocortex has ballooned to massive proportions…. Speaking, writing, planning, and reasoning all originate in the neocortex. So do the experience of our
senses, what we know as awareness, and our conscious motor control, what we know as will. (p. 27)
Evolution’s stuttering process has fashioned a brain that is fragmented and inharmonious, and to some degree composed of players with competing interests…. The cleavage between reason and passion is an ancient theme but no anachronism; it has endured because it speaks to the deep
human experience of a divided mind. The scientific basis for separating neocortical from limbic brain matter rests on solid neuroanatomical, cellular, and empirical grounds. (p. 31)
But even as it reaps the benefits of reason, modern America plows emotions under – a costly practice that obstructs happiness and misleads people about the nature and significance of their lives. That deliberate imbalance is more damaging than one might suppose. Beyond the
variegated sensations and the helpful motivations, science has discovered emotionality’s deep purpose: the timeworn mechanisms of emotion allow two human beings to receive the contents of each other’s minds. Emotion is the messenger of love; it is the vehicle that carries every signal from one brimming heart to another. For human beings, feeling deeply is synonymous with being alive. (p. 37)
In its present form, the limbic brain is not only the seat of dreams, but also the center of advanced emotionality. The primordial purpose of the limbic brain was to monitor the external world and the internal bodily environment, and to orchestrate their congruence….The neocortical brain, although a latecomer to the emotional scene, also receives limbic directives.
These influence the tone of symbolic activities, like language, and strategic operations, like action planning. And the limbic brain orchestrates brain changes that serve a purely communicative role – in response to limbic stimulation, small muscles on the mammalian face contract in precise configurations. The face is the only place in the body where muscles connect
directly to the skin. The sole purpose of this arrangement is to enable the transmission of a flurry of expressive signals. (pp. 51-53)
Infants are early masters of detecting and expressing emotions, which may help to explain their inborn fascination for faces…. Researchers now know that babies are looking at the expressions on the faces they fix on…. One can demonstrate in this manner that infants just a few days old can distinguish between emotional expressions. (pp. 60 – 61)
With 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…. To the animals capable of bridging the gap between minds, limbic resonance is the door to communal connection. (pp. 63-64)
In the 1940s, psychoanalyst René Spitz…described the fate of orphaned children reared in foundling homes and institutions, as well as babies separated from young mothers in prison. In
deference to the newly validated germ theory of disease, institutional babies were fed and clothed, and kept warm and clean, but they were not played with, handled, or held. Human contact, it was thought, would risk exposing the children to hazardous infections organisms. Spitz found that while the physical needs of children were met, they inevitably became withdrawn and sickly, and lost weight. A great many died…. Spitz had rediscovered that a lack of human interaction – handling, cooing, stroking, baby talk, and play – is fatal to infants. (pp. 69-70)
Some of our somatic systems are closed, self-regulating loops. Others are not. Consider, for instance that women who spend time together frequently find their menstrual cycles coming into spontaneous alignment. This harmonious, hormonal communion demonstrates a bodily
connection that is limbic in nature, because close friends achieve synchrony more readily than those who merely room together.
A number of scientists now believe that somatic concordances like these are not just
normal but necessary for mammals. The mammalian nervous system depends for its
neurophysiologic stability on a system of interactive coordination, wherein steadiness comes from synchronization with nearby attachment figures. Protest is the alarm that follows a breach in these life-sustaining adjustments. If the interruption continues, physiologic rhythms decline into the painful unruliness of despair. (p. 84)
Certain bodily rhythms fall into synchrony with ebb and flow of day and night. These rhythms are termed circadian, from the Latin for “about a day.” A more fitting appellation is circumlucent, because they revolve around light as surely as Earth. Human physiology finds a hub not only in light, but also in the harmonizing activity of nearby limbic brains. Our
neural architecture places relationships at the crux of our lives, where, blazing and warm, they have the power to stabilize. When people are hurting and out of balance, they turn to regulating affiliations: groups, clubs, pets, marriages, friendships, masseuses, chiropractors, the Internet. All carry at least the potential for emotional connection. Together, those bonds do more good
than all the psychotherapists on the planet. (pp. 170-171)
Because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiologic
rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we change one another’s
brains through limbic revision – what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life. (pp. 191-192)
Because relationships are mutual, partners share a single fate: no action benefits one
and harms the other. The hard bargainer, who thinks he can win by convincing his partner to meet his needs while circumventing hers, is doomed. (p. 208)
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. Preparing soldiers for combat involves not only teaching them physical skills necessary to vanquish opponents but also indoctrinating the emotional outlook that creates an Enemy. The psychological goal is achieved by severing mental bonds between Us and Them while simultaneously strengthening intragroup ties.
The Enemy is not like us, both sides tell prospective combatants, they are subnormal, inhuman, less than animals. The average infantryman fights not for lofty political ideals, but because homicidal fiends threaten him and the family of buddies with whom he has labored, suffered, and loved. History brims with the brutality that flows between groups when no limbic tie unites them. (p. 216)
Because mammals need relatedness for their neurophysiology to coalesce correctly, most of what makes a socially functional human comes from connection – the shaping physiologic force of love. Children who get minimal care can grow up to menace a negligent society. Because the primate brain’s intricate, interlocking neural barriers to violence do not self-assemble, a limbically damaged human is deadly. If the neglect is sufficiently profound, the result is a functionally reptilian organism armed with the cunning of the neocortical brain. Such an animal experiences no compunctions about harming others of its kind. It possesses no internal motivation not to kill casually from minor frustration or for minimal gain. (p. 218)
The potential for humanity lives inside every infant, but healthy development is an effort,
not a given. If we do not shelter that spark, guide and nurture it, then we not only lose the life within but we unleash later destruction on ourselves. (p. 219)
Walker Percy wrote that “modern man is estranged from being, from his own being, from the being of other creatures in the world, from transcendent being. He has lost something – what he does not know; he only knows that he is sick unto death with the loss of it.” The mysterious, absent element is a deep and abiding immersion in communal ties. In all of its varied and
protean forms, love is the tether binding our whirling lives. (p. 224)
The adventure of seeking a theory of love is far from over. While science can afford us a closer glimpse of this tower or that soaring wall, the heart’s castle still hangs high in the heavens, shrouded in scudding clouds and obscured by mist. Will science ever announce the complete revelation of all of love’s secrets? Will empiricism ever trace an unbroken path from the highest
stones of the heart’s castle down to the bedrock of certitude?
Of course not. We demand too much if we expect single-handed empiricism to define and lay bare the human soul. Only in concert with art does science become so precise. Both are metaphors through which we strive to know the world and ourselves; both can illuminate inner and outer landscapes with a flash that inspires but whose impermanence necessitates unending rediscovery. (p. 230)
All We Need To Know Is Known
During the past 16,000-plus years, humans, largely unconsciously and by modes of thinking and “knowledge” which are now outmoded and which have been proven wrong, have created dominant institutions and normative modes of individual behavior which threaten to destroy life on Earth and which increasingly disempower individuals. By consciously focusing on what is known about behavior change and social learning, people can quite quickly turn institutions in a life-affirming direction. That does not mean that all of our society’s institutions and structures will change immediately. However, what can happen immediately is the formation of mutually empowering relationships at all levels and in all forms which will begin to wrestle with the questions of how to establish new institutions which are based in and which support mutual empowerment and love.
The beginning of that process and the inherently rewarding experience of millions of people involved in that process would produce a communal sense of love and empowerment which would be impossible for the forces of cynicism and darkness to diminish. Art and science, the intellect and the emotions, the limbic and the neocortical – all these apparently different modes and capacities can complement each other, can harmonize rather than operate in opposition to or in negation of the other. Human beings have the opportunity to embrace what has been learned and to discard the outmoded ways of thinking and believing in order to create fundamental change with wondrous results. There is still much that we will learn. Some of what is unknown may well remain mysterious. Nevertheless, we now have sufficient knowledge to begin practices which will minimize suffering and maximize human fulfillment and love.