A letter in response to Jason Stern's 'Esteemed Reader' column in
by Alice Andrews
Love is "one's ability, through demonstrative acts, to confer survival benefits on others in a creatively enlarging manner." - Ashley Montegu
Love is "a wonderful example of long-term focused attention."
- Lucy Brown
“The aim is not to choose the right but to become the sort of person who cannot choose the wrong and who no longer has any choice in the matter.”
- G. M. A. Grube
I liked your letter about relationships. It made me think.
I think attention and attending to the other is what it’s all about. But here’s the problem. When one feels in love with another, it is impossible not to give attention to the beloved. It is almost the very definition of being in love…what I call ‘hot love.’
When one is in a relationship but not in love, however, one may not feel a compulsion to attend, though one might feel the obligation or duty to do so. Not as something which feels like a limbic necessity, but rather something that feels like a neocortexual rational ought.
The fact is, we have built into us, a number of neurohormonal systems that ensure we stay attending and faithful for at least two to four years. Very recent brain research has shown us that indeed ‘hot love’ is an activation of many regions in the limbic system, the evolutionary older part of the brain involved in emotions and survival (the medial insula, anterior cingulate, and the basal ganglia). That makes sense. But in addition, still more recent research (check out anthropologist/evolutionary psychologist Helen Fisher's new book Why We Love) into the brain in love, has “found specific activity in regions of the right caudate nucleus and right ventral tegmental area. These brain areas are rich in dopamine and are part of the brain’s motivation and reward system. Elevated levels of central dopamine produce energy, focused attention on novel stimuli, motivation to win a reward and feelings of elation," according to Lucy Brown, one of the researchers. Okay. That makes a lot of sense too. But there’s one more piece. Not only are these regions active when someone is in love, but the cerebral cortex (the seat of higher cognition) is basically mute and sleeping. Put another way—there is no reason when we love! We essentially stop thinking. This should not be too surprising; love has the potential of making fools and heroes of us all—it impels us to do things that with a little thought would not have been possible. We are all here because our ancestors truly loved—at least for a little while. At least long enough to raise a kid until she was doing well and eating good amounts of mastodon.
Reciprocal altruism is also something that evolutionary theorists believe is a part of our makeup. It is sometimes referred to as tit-for-tat, and has everything to do with the higher cortical functions and processes, about algorithms designed for maximizing survival. That is, being able to attend to someone else’s needs without feeling in love is something that is also a part of the program. When attention is placed on another in a conscious way, the way you are suggesting, it probably involves this very old and deep, moral module.
Though there are many who have the capacity to attend to others when they are in love—or not, some can attend only when they are in love. And, indeed, there are people who are absolutely unable to attend at all. For various reasons, these people have an undifferentiated, undeveloped, malformed or basically nonexistent prefrontal cortex. These probably include people with personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, (what was once referred to as sociopathy), narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, attention deficit disorder (of course!)….and perhaps other disorders and forms of "mental illness."
The truth is, dear Jason, we are all attending. We attend so much, in fact, that a whole host of modern maladies results, including chronic stress and tension and probably depression. For, it appears to me, that the only people who are immune to depression are the ones who have figured out how not to attend some! But, I digress, and am partly pulling your leg. In fact, it is probably not the quantity or intensity of the focus of attention which is problematic, so much as the actual object and quality of attention. But this is a subject for another letter.
This letter is about the battle between the passions and reason, a question which is fairly ancient in the history of philosophy—and philosophy’s daughter, psychology. And the truth is, there is no valuation of one over the other. To have a predilection for one over the other, to me, signals an agenda or bias which stems from the developmental needs of the person during that person’s life-history. What I mean by this is that the heavy emphasis on attention…what, again, to me signifies a judgment in favor of conscious reason and intellect over unconscious emotion and passion is really in service of one’s needs. In fact, cross-cultural studies show that universally, men prefer chastity and fidelity. They prefer the attention on them. This makes evolutionary sense in terms of paternity uncertainty, etc. Men come from a long line of men (millions of years of adaptations to their environment) who desired and mated with women who showed characteristics which demonstrated loyalty and faithfulness. It is your birthright that you seek attention. (Which is not to say that your interest and passion in the subject is unrelated to your early childhood experiences or your involvement with the teachings of Gurdjieff.)
What I very much liked about your letter to your readers about relationships was the idea that we might should try to cultivate a kind of openness to relating to others. Because it is in the openness to our relationships with others that a chance that the older limbic system has a chance to wake up. Using language and labels—activating the cognitive aspect—our emotions have less of a chance to do what Mother Nature intended them to do. So it is by conscious attention to this fact, a resistance to left-brain habits, and to the manifestation of openness and attention to another—as you explain—that we can maybe have it all…So when the hot love chemicals wear off and the warm bonding ones seem a little cool…if we practice this openness, we are, in fact, loving. And maybe what may come of this warm loving is that deep, deep limbic love, the kind of love that boosts you out of bed with a 103 fever just to see your beloved ‘off’ at the airport.
Now, you will say, ‘Alice, that kind of love, that’s selfish love. I don’t have any interest in that kind of love.’ Well, you’re right. It is selfish. (See TE p. 225.* )
The thing is, when it comes to love, there is no right or wrong, good or bad love. Only right-fitting love.
* From Trine Erotic (p.225)
"Being in hot, romantic love, there is never a chance to think. Never. Not a gulp of air. Nothing. No control. No sense of self. Just ‘other.’ Just feeling. No thoughts. No thought about being selfless, just selfless…
“But the paradox is, we can look at that and see that it’s really selfish, right? To be unthinking is selfish. The mechanicalness of it doesn’t really leave room for you to consider the other person, even though that’s all it feels as if you’re doing. And for me, it’s a little related to the madonna/whore dichotomy—maternal love versus sexy love.
“I think companionate, filial, spiritual love…the kind you and everyone at Solaren are trying to practice, has a similar paradox, just in reverse. It’s like you start from that idea…that hot love is selfish and that to really love requires consciousness and work. But, without the feeling of real ‘love’ (the selfish body kind), ‘the work’ falls apart. There’s no glue. Only one’s intention, one’s will. And that seems to be a head thing, not a heart thing."
Copyright by Alice Andrews,
2004. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2004 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. All rights reserved.