Filling the Limbic Void: On the Evolution of Love

Lizard Head by Tina Phillips

It’s Valentine’s Day and love is in the air! I thought today would be a good day to explain why there is a heart in the middle of The Psychology of Wellbeing logo.  The atom symbol, of course, represents science, to convey the fact that this blog is generally based on a spirit of scientific inquiry towards wellbeing (i.e. not just about sharing personal beliefs and stories but rather considering what research has been done and/or what theories are being debated among scientists.)

The atom represents science (in this case, psychology,) but the heart at the center represents wellbeing.  Why a heart?  Because I think most of human wellbeing can be reduced down to love.  In my mind, love is the nucleus of human flourishing.

Unfortunately, love is completely underestimated in our society.  We don’t think about the potential of love as the solution to all of our problems.  But it is.  If a doctor wants to heal their patients, she should love them.  If a manager wants to lead his employees he should love them.  If a business owner wants to be successful, she should love her customers.  If we want peace on Earth, we should love one another.  Love is like a beacon of light that brings flourishing to whatever it shines on.

But love is a relatively new phenomenon on this planet.  Our reptilian ancestors did not experience love, even with their own children.  At best, their emotional relationship with their kin could be described as indifference.  At worst, they viewed their youngsters as a tempting snack.

As we evolved our mammalian brains we developed new tools, including a limbic system that brought us emotions and attachment.  We began to care.  From an evolutionary standpoint, we no longer had to fend for ourselves; we could create a better life for ourselves by bonding with others.

When we communicate with others on this level, it is not through our reptilian brain driven by unconscious reflex reactions, nor is it through our thought driven neocortex.  It is done through our limbic brain communicating directly with the limbic system of another living creature.

This sharing of deep emotional states is called “limbic resonance.”  “Limbic Resonance,” says Thomas Lewis, in A General Theory of Love, “supplies the wordless harmony we see everywhere but take for granted—between mother and infant, between a boy and his dog, between lovers holding hands across a restaurant table.”

Lewis also talks about the importance of this emotional connection for human health, describing human physiology as an “open-loop arrangement,” because humans are constantly transmitting and receiving signals that affect hormone levels, heart functioning, relaxation and stress responses, and immune system functioning (see my comments on the “effect of person” in my article on “Spas and the Psychology of Wellbeing.”)

The evolution of love has us constantly reaching out and seeking connection with others—sometimes through touch, but sometimes filling the limbic void with waves of feeling.  Feelings that are expressed through eye contact, facial expressions, body language and other more subtle ways that we are not even aware of.

When we measure our own wellbeing, we do it not only by monitoring the physiological systems in our body, but by gauging how others are responding to us, how our relationships feel, and how expressed feelings are reciprocated.  When we feel disconnected from others we don’t feel well, and yearn to fill the limbic void.

Here’s Thomas Lewis again from A General Theory of Love:

Being well regulated in relatedness is the deeply gratifying state that people seek ceaselessly in romance, religions, and cults; in husbands and wives, pets, softball teams, bowling leagues, and a thousand other features of human life driven by the thirst for sustaining affiliations (p. 157).

So that’s why I have the heart at the center of my logo . . . because the core of wellbeing is love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

References and Recommended Reading:

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000).  A general theory of love.  Random House.

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4 Responses to Filling the Limbic Void: On the Evolution of Love

  1. Charlie Wills February 14, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Much more LOVING then debating the failed Hotel Wellness System..

    Love Always Wins,,It’s The L.A.W. came to us after “Where there is Love there is No Fear” era of the 90’s got so well copied people were sending it back to us..

    Plus my favorite book of the 80’s a Course in Miracles could have been titled a Course in Love..and all time favorte is …

    The Intelligent Heart…Transform Your Life with the Laws of Love,,

    Sadly neither of these books are allowed in the Corporate Hotel Wellness World,,where Greed and Ego supercede any such notion of LOVE…because they are mostly run by Medical Losers…”Where there is Fear there is No Love”

    I have been helping many with the Issue of LOVE, the past few years focusing on the Heart as the Center of us all…and I have found great help with the Most Stubborn of us all (including myself) with the use of Oxytocin spray the “Mother of the LOVE Hormone”..

    I would like to think my touting of the under use the last 5 years has now helped bring it to a more common use among those that LOVE to help, such as all of us here.. if anyone has LOVED ONES with Asperger or Autism.

    The Author below describes it much better and in less words then I can here..

    Frozen with Fear? How the Love Hormone Gets You Moving
    By Luke Yoquinto

    In frightening situations, people tend to freeze, but not recent moms, who charge ahead. Now a new study shows how the brain speedily delivers the hormone oxytocin — which new mothers have in elevated levels, starting with childbirth — to where it’s needed, freeing them to protect their young.

    The study, done in rats, revealed that oxytocin rushes to the brain region governing fear, called the amygdala, courtesy of special cells that act like a neurological expressway.

    Further, when the researchers provoked these cells into sending oxytocin to the amygdala, it diminished the rats’ fearful responses to being startled.

    The findings “could have implications for autism, anxiety and fear disorders,” said study researcher Ron Stoop, a psychiatric neuroscientist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. The work may also spur scientists to look more closely at the brain’s activity at moments when oxytocin levels are high, such as during childbirth and lactation, Stoop said.

    The study is published in the February issue of the journal Neuron.

    A hole in the wall

    Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, a marble-size region at the bottom of the brain, and released into blood. But the hormone also somehow makes its way into the rest of the brain, including the amygdala — a fact that has long-puzzled scientists, because the blood-brain barrier blocks oxytocin in the blood from moving into the brain.

    From a previous experiment, Stoop’s team knew that oxytocin in the amygdala causes rats to remain in motion when they are scared, instead of freezing as they normally would.

    “The main question was, ‘How does it get from hypothalamus to the amygdala?'” Stoop said. One idea was that oxytocin slowly diffused through the intervening brain tissue. But oxytocin affects the amygdala in “like, two seconds,” Stoop said — far quicker than the time it would take for diffusion.

    Oxytocin had to be reaching its destination another way. To investigate, Stoop’s team infected rat hypothalamus cells with a virus that caused the cells to produce a glowing green protein whenever they produced oxytocin.

    Afterward, when they dissected the rat brains, they saw “this beautiful network of green fluorescent protein,” Stoop said, which included fibers that reached all the way from the hypothalamus to the amygdala. They had found the oxytocin’s hole in the wall.

    The next step was to see this speedy delivery system in action. The researchers induced the newly discovered fibers to deliver oxytocin to the amygdala, and the moment they did, the frozen-in-fear rats began to move freely, Stoop said. “When we stop… they stop moving.” It was a living demonstration of how oxytocin gets to where it needs to go to control fear.

    Oxytocin’s dampening effect on fear is especially relevant for lactating mothers, who have high oxytocin levels, and can best defend their offspring from a threat when not frozen in terror. Similarly, during childbirth, elevated oxytocin delivery to the amygdala “may be important in reducing anxiety and fear levels,” Stoop said.

    Fear and the brain

    The experiment was an “incredibly elegant approach to neurobiology,” said C. Sue Carter, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was not involved with the study.

    The oxytocin-delivery system suggests that the hormone’s role in our response to fear “is faster than we recognized,” Carter said.

    The findings also raise more questions, such as whether this system varies among individuals, Stoop said. It’s possible that people have different numbers of oxytocin receptors in the amygdala, which could explain why some people are more anxious than others, he said, though more studies are needed to show that.

    Certainly, some mental illnesses have their roots in fear, Carter said. “The literature suggests that individuals that have disorders — like autism, and certain forms of schizophrenia and a number of anxiety disorders — are all experiencing a sense of fear or threat, even when there’s nothing there.”

    The oxytocin-delivery system, or a failure of this system to perform as it should, may be involved in these illnesses, Carter said.

  2. oz February 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    My reading of the research is that love of self is more more important – think self acceptance, self esteem etc

  3. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) February 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    HI Oz, that is important (also for my work in the spa world.) Think of Kristin Neff’s research on self-compassion and what could be better than taking yourself to the spa as a way of showing yourself compassion and kindness. But there is tons of research on altruism, affection, touch, kindness, etc. benefiting both the giver and the receiver.

  4. Kathryn Stolle February 21, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    You know what, Jeremy? This resonates in my own heart – totally anecdotal, hardly scientific, but very, very real. I completely concur with your final statement.

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