A General Theory of Love. By Keith White

In the autumn of 2018 I exchanged emails, as we do from time to time, with my friend and colleague, Jerome Berryman, the founder of Godly Play. He is a polymath who worked (as well as many other places) at the Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Child Guidance Centre, was Adjunct Asst. Professor of Paediatric Pastoral Care on the clinical faculty of Baylor College of Medicine 1979-1984, and headmaster of a Montessori school for 250 children from 2-14 years of age in Cleveland Heights.

For some reason we exchanged book recommendations.  I proffered Yan Martel’s novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, while he suggested that I read, A General Theory of Love.  The reason for his offer was that he knew I had been working for some time on a fundamental reconfiguration of Child Development Theory, and that I knew that it had to have somewhere near its core, the concept of love.  Readers of my columns in this journal may recall that I have sometimes wondered how different things might have been had John Bowlby stayed with the word, “love”, rather than the more specific terms, bonding and attachment.  Jerome had assumed that as the author of The Growth of Love, I probably knew of A General Theory already.

I am still not sure whether Jerome has read Martel’s book, but I have devoured his recommendation, and am profoundly grateful to him for introducing me to it.  When I realised that its three authors, all formerly practising psychiatrists and academics, acknowledged the significance of Blaise Pascal’s insight that “le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point”, I knew I was on to something dear to my heart.  But little did I know how dear, or how challenging for my mind. The basic argument of the book is that human beings are wired for relationships and intimacy: interdependence and love.  The bonds and ties that develop from before birth affect and form the way that our brains are structured and function as strongly as the medication and drugs that are the staple diet of most invasive mental health treatment in our time.

Now because both Jerome and I are familiar with the writing and research associated with what has come to be known as children’s spirituality, we have both witnessed the way in which little children make connections with ideas and concepts that transcend everyday interactions and learning. The plasticity of their neural networks means that at the very earliest stages of life that have the potential to connect with virtually everything in the universe and beyond. But what I lacked was a theory that helped to explain why this should be, and how their brains develop and operate.  Based at Mill Grove for most of my life, I have been privileged to be alongside children, young people and adults whose attitudes and behaviour have clearly been affected and shaped by experiences in early childhood, and mostly some time before I got to know them.  I was familiar with psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic history and theory, but I could not begin to get a coherent understanding of how they functioned as whole human beings in relationship, that included their brain development (thinking and processing), and patterns of behaviour. And I was puzzled and saddened, because I could not understand why they replicated sameness even when this led them continually into difficulties, anxiety, and sometimes despair.

Lewis, Amini and Lannon, the three retired psychiatrists who are the authors of this book, propose reasons for this.  The basis for their argument is a simple map of the human brain.  Like Gaul, it is divided into three parts: reptilian, limbic, and neocortical.  The reptilian part is located at the top of our spinal column and is responsible for our bodily functions and reactions.  It provides the fundamental “background tone to our emotional life” or temperament (pp 47-48). The emotional circuits in the reptilian part of our brain create a broad behavioural disposition, including the most common binary reflex reaction, fight or flight.  This is given for the most part, in the sense of having been formed early on, and is almost completely outside our control.

The reptilian brain is encased by the limbic.  Its primary function is to monitor and regulate the relationship between external and the internal worlds, fine-tuning physiology and what the body sees, hears, feels and smells. A crucial part of the body is the human face: it is a primary communicator of expressive signals, and the limbic part of the brain both processes what it learns from the faces of others, as well as shaping the muscles in the face of its owner.  The way it does this can cause the reptilian brain to change its cardiovascular function (heart rate and blood flow), depending on whether it detects hostility and threats or not.

The last part of the brain to develop in the evolutionary scheme of things is the precisely named neo-cortical.  It is where language, abstract logic, mathematics and problem-solving are done.  It is not the seat of emotions as we have seen, but it does have a role in moderating them.  The differences between the left and right sides of the brain are well charted.  The left-side deals with the decoding of signs, data and language, while the right-side is where the emotional interpretation of signs and speech are read.  Emotional literacy, as distinct from raw intelligence depends heavily on the right side of the neocortical brain.  It is worth bearing in mind here the role of emojis in electronic communication: symbols that add emotion to the words on the screen.

The human baby is skilled from the earliest days in reading the mother’s face (it is usually, though not always, the mother), and this is not a one-way process.  There is constant interaction between the child’s expressions and those of the mother.  Limbic resonance is the attunement of the emotional states of parent and child.  And this is necessarily patterned, or wired in the child, with neural patterns and pathways developing unconsciously. We have here the territory in which John Bowlby worked, influenced by the data and studies coming in from those observing children separated from their parents and living in orphanages or prisons.

Emotional wellbeing depends on the instinctive bonding between mothers and their children.  This shapes the limbic region where the congruence and balance between the internal and external worlds of the child are regulated.

There is much more, and I propose to share more of my discoveries in subsequent articles for The Therapeutic Care Journal, but this is the basis of the argument.  And as the title indicates the authors are intent on using the word love to describe what is going on.  The growth of love in a person is dependent on a healthy limbic resonance, and yet the limbic region is beyond the reach of consciousness.

So, where there has been insecure attachment and where unhealthy emotional and behaviours and reactions occur, what can be done about them?  We are in the territory so memorably set out and described by Dan Hughes, Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Traumatized Children.  It is not just a case of seeking to repair bonds of attachment, because they are not there to start with.  They have to be built.  Here is the heart of much psychiatry and therapeutic care.

This is what I have been about at Mill Grove, along with many others in a range of therapeutic settings.  Psychiatry in the UK recognises much of this brain research, which is why drug treatment is so prevalent.  Changes in the brain and the way it processes data, feelings, dreams, and emotions is necessary, and drugs produce changes, so QED!  Except that they operate without reference to experience of the real world, to other human beings, to relationships and to love.  For the model of treatment by medication assumes a single brain, and particular drugs and doses.  But if we are wired for relationships, the person treated is being deprived of what is necessary for human growth and development.

Which is where love comes in.  For consistent and healthy long-term relationships are another way of seeking to build bonds of attachment. It is not an either/or, but drugs alone deny the very nature of what it is to be human.

Since reading the book, and the way the limbic region functions I have been re-thinking all sorts of labels, dynamics and processes: autism, Asperger’s syndrome, cognitive and behavioural therapy (which deliberately eschew emotions and love), the role of poetry and fiction, religion and fantasy in the developing life of children. And the trajectory of modern western “society” with its stress on human autonomy and individualism. I thought of the demise of marriage and the rise of short-term cohabitations. And of educational theories and institutions which proceed without reference to emotional intelligence and attunement.

Recently I was at a conference of Christian Social Workers, and several remarked that they were not sure what social work was about nowadays.  A generation ago we believed in relationship-based engagement and knew of Father Biestek and his seminal book, The Casework Relationship.  Today there were “pieces of work”, and specific interventions and tasks.  But where is long-term relationship and love?

Ruth and I have devoted our lives to specific children, adults and families, and to staying with them, alongside them, and for them.  This book has given us encouragement and hope.  While others pursue different methods, A General Theory of Love has reminded us that there is a valid place, possibly a unique and essential one, for love.

Thank you, Jerome.  Thank you very much.


  1. Lewis, F. Amini, R. Lannon A General Theory of Love, (New York: Random House, 2001)


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