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The One?


Dr. Tom Lewis

Dr. Lewis is co-author of “A General Theory of Love” with Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D. Dr. Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the UCSF.


The following is excerpted from an on-camera interview with Tom Lewis, which is interspersed in our film with man-on-the-street interviews about whether people believe in The One. Here Dr. Lewis's segments have been reconstituted into a small essay.

We used to say ten years ago it was pointless to study the brain science of emotion. We skeptically asked, "what does science have to do with that?" Now that very prevalent attitude has been chased out, and people realize that emotional life is a completely legitimate neurophysiological inquiry.

When mammals showed up on the planet, their method of reproduction was different. Unlike reptiles, they gave birth to live helpless young that had to be nurtured or wouldn’t survive. The parent had to monitor the physiology of the baby. This lead to the development of a part of the brain called the Great Limbic Lobe, which we share with all mammals.

Infants’ physiology is incomplete on its own; babies can’t get to sleep on their own, they need to be lulled to sleep; they can’t soothe themselves, instead seek out someone who can soothe them.

Just as infants need the regulating presence of the external contact figure, all of us are like infants, only bigger, and we also need the regulatory influence.

Most people think their body is self contained, that sugar levels are monitored internally and so on, oxygen, hormones. It’s very surprising that this not true – there are physiological parameters regulated by other people outside own body.

In our culture we construe loneliness as weakness, as a character defect, not as a "normal" need. But it’s based on brain evolution; there’s no choice about it. Just as when you’re hungry, or low on water and feel thirst, loneliness is a real physiological feeling telling you you need something vital. It hurts so much because it’s important to your health.

A relationship is not just an abstract idea, like the economy, it’s a live physiologic event much like a heartbeat or a breath or a muscle contraction.

Relationships have a grammar to them, a regularity that’s discoverable. Just as a child hears language spoken and discovers the regularities, the brain of a child studies relationships and pulls out the regularities, or rules, same as they learn the rules of their native language.

As a result, people often tend to fall in love with same person over and over. It’s very likely to be the end-product of their implicit memory, which is why they find some people interesting and others not so interesting. If they grew up with someone who didn’t listen to them, that’s what they want, even if they don’t know it - not someone who’s nice. Like some grew up in New York City; while other places might be nicer, they want New York, it's what their emotional memory finds comfortable.

Regarding the urge for a One, it’s true that infants are born with orientation to one attachment figure that’s primary, and others that are secondary. Infants are not born to have multiple attachment figures, often to the dismay of many fathers; their orientation is towards One, primary, and with that one the physiological connection.

When they’re with someone they match with, someone they feel they "belong" with, they report they feel more like themselves than they did before. Some of strongest laid down parts of their emotional memory are connecting with those of the other person.

The urge is for not one person to satisfy every need, but for that feeling of deep bond and communion. It’s not only emotional, but physical and neurophysiological. To feel whole, or regulated – like after eating, you feel like don’t need any more, or anyone else.

Once you establish that bond, it’s so solid and impermeable that can’t swap people out. You can see people who have had that physiological relationship for decades – if one dies the other dies, and I have seen people wander the planet bereft, unable to find another key for that lock.