Limbic Regulation

a general theory of love

Limbic regulation is the effect of contact with other people upon the development and stability of personality and mood. The concept was advanced in the book ‘A General Theory of Love’ (2000), and is one of three interrelated concepts central to the book’s premise: that our brain chemistry and nervous systems are measurably affected by those closest to us (limbic resonance); that our systems synchronize with one another in a way that has profound implications for personality and lifelong emotional health (limbic regulation); and that these set patterns can be modified through therapeutic practice (limbic revision).

As the authors poetically frame it: ‘Human physiology finds a hub … 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.’

Lewis, Amini and Lannon make a compelling case for the centrality of limbic regulation to our physiological as well as emotional well-being. They begin with a story from the dawn of scientific experimentation in human development—albeit heinously misguided—when in the thirteenth century Frederick II raised a group of infants to be completely cut off from human interaction, other than the most basic care and feeding, so as to discover what language would spontaneously arise absence of any communication prompts. The result of this notorious experiment was that the infants, deprived of any human discourse or affection, all died.

The authors find the hegemony of Freudian theory in the early days of psychology and psychiatry to be almost as harmful as the ideas of Frederick the Great. They condemn the focus on cerebral insight, and the ideal of a cold, emotionless analyst, as negating the very benefit that psychotherapy can confer by virtue of the empathetic bond and neurological reconditioning that can occur in the course of sustained therapeutic sessions. ‘Freud’s enviable advantage is that he never seriously undertook to follow his own advice. Many promising young therapists have their responsiveness expunged, as they are taught to be dutifully neutral observers, avoiding emotional contact….But since therapy is limbic relatedness, emotional neutrality drains life out of the process…’

‘A General Theory of Love’ is scarcely more sympathetic to Dr. Benjamin Spock and his ‘monumentally influential volume’ ‘Baby and Child Care,’ especially given Spock’s role in promoting the movement against co-sleeping, or allowing infants to sleep in the same bed as their parents. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon cite the research of sleep scientist James McKenna, which seems to suggest that the limbic regulation between sleeping parents and infants is essential to the neurological development of the latter and a major factor in preventing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). ‘The temporal unfolding of particular sleep stages and awake periods of the mother and infant become entwined….on a minute to minute basis, throughout the night, much sensory communication is occurring between them.’

In ‘Living a connected life’ (2003), Dr. Kathleen Brehony looks at recent brain research which shows the importance of proximity of others in our development. ‘Especially in infancy, but throughout our lives, our physical bodies are influencing and being influenced by others with whom we feel a connection. Scientists call this limbic regulation.’ Brehony goes on to describe the parallels between the ‘protest/despair’ cycles of an abandoned puppy and human development. Mammals have developed a tendency to experience distraction, anxiety, and measurable levels of stress in response to separation from their care-givers and companions, precisely because such separation has historically constituted a threat to their survival. As anyone who has owned a puppy can attest, when left alone it will cry, bark, howl, and seek to rejoin its human or canine companions. If these efforts are unsuccessful and the isolation is prolonged, it will sink into a state of dejection and despair. The marginal effectiveness of placing a ticking clock in the puppy’s bed is based on a universal need in mammals to synchronize to the rhythms of their fellow creatures.

Limbic resonance and limbic regulation are also referred to as ‘mood contagion’ or ’emotional contagion’ as in the work of Sigal Barsade. Barsade and colleagues at the Yale School of Management build on research in social cognition, and find that some emotions, especially positive ones, are spread more easily than others through such ‘interpersonal limbic regulation.’ Author Daniel Goleman has explored similar terrain across several works: in ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (1995), an international best seller, ‘The Joy Of Living,’ coauthored with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and the ‘Harvard Business Review on Breakthrough Leadership.’ In the latter book, Goleman considers the ‘open loop nature of the brain’s limbic system’ which depends on external sources to manage itself, and examines the implications of interpersonal limbic regulation and the science of moods on leadership.

In ‘Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking’ (2003) author Staphine Kaza defines the term as follows: ‘Limbic regulation is a mutual simultaneous exchange of body signals that unfolds between people who are deeply involved with each other, especially parents and children.’ She goes on to correlate love with limbic engagement and asserts that children raised with love learn and remember better than those who are abused. Kaza then proposes to ‘take this work a step further from a systems perspective, and imagine that a child learns through some sort of limbic regulation with nature.’

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