The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Music, the Neural Harmonics of Emotion, and How Love Restrings the Brain

“Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

Music, the Neural Harmonics of Emotion, and How Love Restrings the Brain

“Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook one spring day in 1840. “It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow… It is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but wait for the soul to make itself understood.”

A century after him, the French philosopher Simone Weil — another visionary of uncommon insight into the depths of the soul — contemplated the paradox of friendship, observing that “it is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.”

For one consciousness to understand another — to understand what it is like to be another — might be the supreme challenge of communication and coexistence, because we each move through life half-opaque to ourselves. We aim the analytical mind — that magnificent novelty-instrument millennia in the evolutionary making — at the opacity, but occluding the lens of self-understanding is something much more primeval: Emotion smudges the eyepiece of life, often without our awareness, changing what we see and making us react not to what is but to what we are perceiving. Anyone with moderate self-awareness can relate to the experience of having an irritable or indignant or melancholy mood descend upon them seemingly out of the blue, when it has in fact coalesced out of an invisible and pervasive atmosphere of unprocessed feeling: Who among us has not, in a human moment, aimed a flash of fury at the wrong person for the wrong thing because something entirely else is filling the sky of the mind with its charged nimbus of wrongness.

Why emotion so easily clouds the lens of experience is what psychiatrist trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore throughout A General Theory of Love (public library) — the altogether revelatory book that remains, in my life of reading, the single most illuminating inquiry into the neurological nature and psychological nurture of why we feel what we feel and how this shapes how we become what we are.

Available as a print.

Drawing an analogy to music — which might be so elemental to our sense of aliveness precisely because it shares a fundamental neuropsychological mechanism with emotion — Lewis, Amini, and Lannon examine the composition of feeling out of neural notation, illuminating the interdependence of and difference between emotion and mood:

Emotions possess the evanescence of a musical note. When a pianist strikes a key, a hammer collides with the matching string inside his instrument and sets it to vibrating at its characteristic frequency. As amplitude of vibration declines, the sound falls off and dies away. Emotions operate in an analogous way: an event touches a responsive key, an internal feeling-tone is sounded, and it soon dwindles into silence. (The figures of speech “pluck at one’s heartstrings” and “strikes a chord in me” have found a home in our language for just this reason.) Rising activity in the emotion circuits produces not sound, but (among other things) a facial expression. When the neural excitation exceeds a shadowy threshold of awareness, what emerges is a feeling — the conscious experience of emotional activation. As neural activity diminishes, feeling intensity decreases, but some residual activity persists in those circuits after a feeling is no longer perceptible. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an emotion appears suddenly in the drama of our lives to nudge the players in the proper direction, and then dissolves into nothingness, leaving behind a vague impression of its former presence.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. (Available as a print.)

Against this haunted backdrop of feeling, the dance of mood plays out, twirling us into tumult with its persuasive percussion:

Moods exist because of the musical aspect of an emotion’s neural activity, the lower portion imperceptible to our conscious ears… A mood is a state of enhanced readiness to experience a certain emotion. Where an emotion is a single note, clearly struck, hanging for a moment in the still air, a mood is the extended, nearly inaudible echo that follows. Consciousness registers a fading level of activation in the emotion circuits faintly or not at all. And so the provocative events of the day may leave us with emotional responsiveness waiting beneath our notice… Since the neural activation that creates a given emotion decreases gradually, provoking it again is easier within the window of the mood.

By these imperceptible pulsations and resonances, our present experience comes to reverberate with echoes of the past:

A musical tone makes physical objects vibrate at its frequency, the phenomenon of sympathetic reverberation. A soprano breaks a wineglass with the right note as she makes unbending glass quiver along with her voice. Emotional tones in the brain establish a living harmony with the past in a similar way. The brain is not composed of string, and there are no oscillating fibers within the cranium. But in the nervous system, information echoes down the filaments that join harmonious neural networks. When an emotional chord is struck, it stirs to life past memories of the same feeling.

[…]

A particular emotion revives all memories of its prior instantiations. Every feeling (after the first) is a multilayered experience, only partly reflecting the present, sensory world.

Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1926 edition of The Tempest. (Available )

Over the sweep of time, our lived experience thus rewires the brain, generating a forceful momentum of emotional habit. What we have felt comes to shape what we most easily and readily feel, unstringing the harp of reality. We come to perceive the world not as it is but as we are. At the heart of this reality-discord are what Lewis, Amini, and Lannon term Limbic Attractors — pre-conditioned patterns of interpretation of incoming sensory data, densely networked and deeply ingrained in the limbic brain, activated so reflexively and powerfully that they can obscure and overwhelm the raw signal of reality.

Limbic Attractors are the source of the blindness that makes us so opaque to ourselves, but they are also a portal to transcending our own limitations by linking up to other minds, sympathetic and sonorous with different feeling-tones. Through such mutual harmonics — nowhere more powerful than in the limbic linkage we call love — we can recompose our own patterned soundtrack of emotion:

Because human beings remember with neurons, we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear anew what we have heard most often, think just what we have always thought. Our minds are burdened by an informational inertia whose headlong course is not easy to slow… No individual can think his way around his own Attractors, since they are embedded in the structure of thought… Because limbic resonance and regulation join human minds together in a continuous exchange of influential signals, every brain is part of a local network that shares information — including Attractors.

[…]

Through the limbic transmission of an Attractor’s influence, one person can lure others into his emotional virtuality. All of us, when we engage in relatedness, fall under the gravitational influence of another’s emotional world, at the same time that we are bending his emotional mind with ours. Each relationship is a binary star, a burning flux of exchanged force fields, the deep and ancient influences emanating and felt, felt and emanating.

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. (Available as a print.)

In any such binary star system, this limbic resonance allows two people to harmonize their Attractors, fine-tuning the respective musical tones that most easily flow from each consciousness — Pythagoras’s music of the spheres and Kepler’s celestial harmonics, right here on Earth, in the infinite universe of the human heart:

In a relationship, one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them. Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.

Complement this fragment of the altogether illuminating A General Theory of Love with poet Ronald Johnson on matter, music, and the mind, then revisit José Ortega y Gasset on how our loves shape our character and George Saunders on breaking our patterns to unbreak our hearts.

BP

Winter Trees as a Portal to Aliveness

“Eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies.”

Winter Trees as a Portal to Aliveness

There is something about the skeletal splendor of winter trees — so vascular, so axonal, so pulmonary — that fills the lung of life with a special atmosphere of aliveness. Something beyond the knowledge that wintering is the root of trees’ resilience, beyond the revelation of their fractal nature and how it salves the soul with its geometry of grief. Something that humbles you to the barest, most beautiful face of the elemental.

I know of no one who has captured that singular enchantment better than the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930).

Anna Botsford Comstock circa 1900.

In 1902, nine years before she laid the cultural groundwork for what we now call youth climate action in her exquisite field guide to wonder, Comstock wrote an article for the magazine Country Life that became, fourteen years later, her slender, tender book Trees at Leisure (public library | public domain) — a love letter to the science, splendor, and spiritual rewards of our barked, branched, rooted chaperones of being.

A century before Ursula K. Le Guin so mightily unsexed the universal pronoun, Comstock considers the role trees have played in “the aesthetic education of man” since the dawn of evolutionary time and writes:

Ages may have passed before man gained sufficient mental stature to pay admiring tribute to the tree standing in all the glory of its full leafage, shimmering in the sunlight, making its myriad bows to the restless winds; but eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies, which is the tree-lover’s full heritage.

Ever/After by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Noting that “the mortal who has never enjoyed a speaking acquaintance with some individual tree is to be pitied,” for a tree “brings serene comfort to the human heart,” Comstock celebrates winter as the season that welcomes the most intimate connection between the human heart and trees:

In winter, we are prone to regard our trees as cold, bare, and dreary; and we bid them wait until they are again clothed in verdure before we may accord to them comradeship. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, ready to give its most intimate confidences to those who love it. It is indeed a superficial acquaintance that depends upon the garb worn for half the year; and to those who know them, the trees display even more individuality in the winter than in the summer. The summer is the tree’s period of reticence, when, behind its mysterious veil of green, it is so busy with its own life processes that it has no time for confidences, and may only now and then fling us a friendly greeting.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara, 1931 — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage woodblocks of trees. (Available as a print.)

Winter, Comstock observes, is the best time for learning to tell trees apart from each other. How to discern, and inevitably fall in love with, different species — the sycamore, with its “great undulating, serpent-like branches, blotched with white”; the golden osier willow, with its “magnificent trunk and giant limbs upholding a mass of terminal shoots that tinge with warm ocher the winter landscape”; the apple, with its “maze of twigs” and its “great twisted branches making picturesque any scene” — is what Comstock explores throughout the rest of her sapling-sized, sequoia-spirited Trees at Leisure.

Complement it with Trees at Night — a playful, poignant meditation on our relationship to trees, painted by the cartoonist Art Young in the final years of Anna Botsford Comstock’s life — and Paul Klee, writing in the same era, on why an artist is like a tree, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s love poem to trees and Rilke on winter as the season for tending to your inner garden.

For a different portal into growing more intimate with trees, explore Italian artist, designer, futurist, and inventor Bruno Munari’s uncommon vintage gem Drawing a Tree. Then, for no reason other than sheer delight, savor Women in Trees.

BP

Darwin’s Greatest Regret and His Deathbed Reflection on What Makes Life Worth Living

“If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

A century before an encyclopedia titled Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know fell into Alan Turing’s child-hands and seeded the ideas that bloomed into the computing revolution, an encyclopedia titled Wonders of the World fell into the child-hands of Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882), seeding in him the passion for travel to remote wonderlands of nature that took him aboard the Beagle to make the observations that ultimately came abloom in his evolutionary revolution.

Charles Darwin, age 7. Portrait by Ellen Sharples, 1816.

Darwin grew up in the Golden Age of the great nature-poets — the days of Wordsworth’s proclamation that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science” — and so the boy’s passion for the science of nature came coupled with a passion for its splendor, channeled in the poetic and aesthetic enchantments of the human arts.

Between lessons on Euclid, the teenage Darwin sat for hours reading poetry: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Milton. Later, when he could only carry a single book on his voyages, he carried Paradise Lost.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

At twenty, after traveling to a “music meeting” in Birmingham, Darwin wrote to his cousin: “[It] was the most glorious thing I ever experienced.” His love of music grew so intense that, as he began formulating his ideas about evolutionary descent, he timed his thinking-walks to hear the choir at Kings College Chapel. “It gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver,” he recalled in his old age, baffled that music could move him so deeply despite his own exceptionally bad ear for pitch. (Here Darwin falls victim to his time and training, looking for a physiological explanation before the birth of psychology and neuroscience, before we understood how music moves us not by sense-organ mechanics but by the lever of feeling — that supreme interpretive art of higher consciousness, so that “matter delights in music, and became Bach.”)

This feeling-tone of the beautiful, this delight in the native poetry and musicality of aliveness, accompanied Darwin as he dove deeper and deeper into science to emerge with nothing less than a new world order of understanding the natural world and our place in it. In the last months of finalizing On the Origin of Species, the forty-nine-year-old Darwin wrote in an ecstatic letter to his wife and great love, Emma:

I strolled a little beyond the glade for an hour and a half… the fresh yet dark green of the grand old Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old birches, with their white stems, and a fringe of distant green from the larches, made an excessively pretty view… a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing… it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw and did not care one penny how the beasts or birds had been formed.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane — a twenty-first-century act of poetic resistance to the erasure of nature from the human repertoire of ecstatic imagination.

When the Beagle took him to Brazil in his mid-twenties, Darwin gasped in his journal as he beheld the grandeur of the rainforest:

It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.

These “higher feelings” shaped his notion of divinity — he observed that the devotional experience people cite as their proof of God is based on the same “sense of sublimity” that nature’s grandeur stirs in the spirit, the same “powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.” (Two centuries later, the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman would echo and harmonize this idea in her lovely notion of the Earth ecstatic as a personal religion.)

But then, as Darwin grew old, something happened — something he himself struggled to understand, something that caused him great sorrow: This radiant delight in aliveness through the transcendent experience of beauty — be it in spring’s symphony of songbirds or in a Bach sonata, in a Whitman poem or in the slant of sunlight on a centuries-old oak — grew dim, then was altogether extinguished. Darwin found himself mentally alert and active, but blind, deaf, dead to the life of feeling with which beauty inspirits us.

This gave him both his greatest regret and his greatest insight into the purpose of life.

Charles Darwin in his later years. Portrait by the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

In his final years, Darwin set aside an hour each afternoon to reflect on his life and to impart the private cosmogony of meaning he had discovered in his seven decades. In a set of autobiographical sketches he wrote for his children, bearing the heading “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character,” he considered what makes us human, what makes us happy, and what makes life worth living. After his death, finding in these notes immense insight and universal value, his children edited and published them as The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (public library).

In one of these recollections, the elderly Darwin writes:

My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure… Pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight… But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.

In a sentiment of extraordinary lucidity and humility, and of immense foresight given what we have since learned about the brain, Darwin bends his mind into examining its own inner workings, illuminating the most essential nature of the human animal — a beast of feeling, wired not for brutality but for beauty:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Complement with Mary Shelley, writing in Darwin’s epoch about a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living and Walt Whitman, writing shortly after his paralytic stroke, on how an appetite for nature’s beauty restores vitality, then revisit the story of how Darwin’s greatest loss shaped his view of life.

BP

Love and Limerence: The Forgotten Psychologist Dorothy Tennov’s Revelatory Research into the Confusions of Bonding

“It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.”

Love and Limerence: The Forgotten Psychologist Dorothy Tennov’s Revelatory Research into the Confusions of Bonding

“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will,” Stendhal wrote in his landmark 1822 “crystallization” model of how we fall in and out of love. What he was actually describing, however — in those Cartesian epochs before it was acceptable or even conceivable that matters of feeling could be functions of mental activity and subjects of the reasoned study we call science — was limerence. A century and a half later, James Baldwin shone a sidewise gleam on limerence in his lament that “people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.” Except limerence is the profound unmooring masquerading as the mooring post.

Anyone who has ever experienced limerence — a staggering more-than-third of the population, although everyone undergoing it feels alienated, alone, and abnormal — feels the instant relief of recognition. Anyone who has never experienced it feels baffled that a state so illogical can so possess otherwise rational and responsible people with no distinct psychopathology. Anyone who has found themselves on the receiving end of it — a “limerent object” — has shared in being at first flattered, then frustrated, then even furious at being so unpeeled from the reality of themselves in the ensnared eyes of the other.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Psychologist and philosopher of science Dorothy Tennov (August 29, 1928–February 3, 2007) coined the term limerence in the 1970s, drawing on a decade of research: data from thousands of questionnaires she administered, centuries of autobiographies and published personal journals, and several hundred case studies of people she interviewed from a wilderness of backgrounds and life-situations, all revealing a strikingly similar experience. Although she should have won a Nobel Prize for it — if the prize itself recognized the value of psychology to human welfare on a par with awarded disciplines like economics and physiology — she was largely dismissed and derided at the time she presented it, a time when the patriarchy of psychology was still ensnared by Freud’s fraudulent authoritarianism. Although her work became foundational to attachment theory, she died a footnote in the literature of her field.

Tennov detailed her revelatory findings in the 1979 book Love and Limerence (public library), in which she describes limerence as “an uncontrollable, biologically determined, inherently irrational, instinct-like reaction” that gnaws at the foundation of our vain beliefs about free will, unique among human experience in the total control it assumes of one’s thought process and the total helplessness of the thinker, no matter their degree of intelligence, emotional maturity, self-awareness, psychological stability, or force of will. Indeed, the single most crucial feature of limerence Tennov found is “its intrusiveness, its invasion of consciousness against our will.” (In this respect, I find, its closest kin is grief — that mental mouse that “chooses Wainscot in the Breast for His Shy House — and baffles quest.”)

Tennov writes:

People have been trying to control limerence without much success for as far back as records go, but it is remarkably tenacious, involuntary, and resistant to external influence once it takes hold… Limerence is unaffected by the intensity of our desire to call it into or out of existence at our wills… It can override self-welfare, and its power over life seems neither diminished with age nor less for one sex than for the other.

Drawing on her vast sample of “informants” — a term honoring the purpose of this research as the integration of information into greater understanding of what it means to be human, which I find to be a lovely improvement over the pathologizing “patients” or the dehumanizing “subjects” used by most psychologists and clinicians — Tennov distills the most elemental characteristics of limerence:

  • intrusive thinking about the limerent object, or “LO”
  • acute longing for reciprocation
  • dependency of mood on LO’s actions or, more accurately, your interpretation of LO’s actions with respect to the probability of reciprocation
  • inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time (exceptions occur only when limerence is at low ebb — early on or in the last fading)
  • some fleeting and transient relief from unrequited limerent passion through vivid imagination of action by LO that means reciprocation
  • fear of rejection and sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness in LO’s presence, especially in the beginning and whenever uncertainty strikes
  • intensification through adversity (at least, up to a point)
  • acute sensitivity to any act or thought or condition that can be interpreted favorably, and an extraordinary ability to devise or invent “reasonable” explanations for why the neutrality that the disinterested observer might see is in fact a sign of hidden passion in the LO
  • an aching of the “heart” (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong
  • buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when reciprocation seems evident
  • a general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background
  • a remarkable ability to emphasize what is truly admirable in LO and to avoid dwelling on the negative, even to respond with a compassion for the negative and render it, emotionally if not perceptually, into another positive attribute
Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1926 edition of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. (Available as a print.)

This total takeover of the will is what sets limerence apart from attraction, romantic fantasy, or a mere crush — takeover that begins with a level of stealth that reminds me of the famous parasitic wasp, mind-controlling its caterpillar victim into self-destruction. Tennov writes:

The onset of limerence has a voluntary feel about it. We go readily and willfully toward its promises of joy. It is only later that images of LO intrude unbidden and the mind suddenly cannot be set elsewhere the way a wayward volume might be returned to the bookshelf… Then there comes the time when you have had enough and want to finish it. Rational bases for hopefulness have been exhausted. The intrusions and literal aches of unfulfilled desire and precious wasted moments of life force the recognition that control may not be total. You even wonder about the past when control seemed possible, if not assured. Uncertainty increases. You wonder if you had the control you thought you had and whether you ever will again.

[…]

Whatever factors cause an individual to “select” a specific LO, limerence cements the reaction and locks the emotional gates against further intrusion. This exclusivity, which always occurs in limerence, weakens the effect of physical attractiveness, since the most beautiful individual in the world cannot compete with LO once limerence has taken hold.

Even so, and crucially so, Tennov is careful to make clear that although limerence is at odds with rationality, although it can be painful to the point of agony for the limerent and uncomfortable to the point of exasperation for the LO at whom its glaring beam of attention and need is directed, it is not a psychopathology, nor does it have correlation or consistent co-occurrence with any known mental illnesses. Rather, it is a style of attachment, the origins of which are still unclear and the course of which is nearly identical in all limerents — people otherwise reasonable and high-functioning. It strikes indiscriminately across age, race, gender, orientation, and calling, though it does seem to afflict the creative disproportionately, perhaps because the very process of limerence is in a sense a creative process — a process of sustained attention and selective amplification. (Indeed, an understanding of limerence suddenly casts a new light upon some of the world’s greatest works of art: So many classic love songs are heard anew as hymns of limerence, so many classic love poems are read anew as limerent elegies, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration — the hundreds Emily Dickinson wrote to, for, and about her lifelong LO being a supreme example.)

Tennov also draws a distinction between limerence and projection:

Crystallization fashions an image of “perfections” from LO’s actual attractive features, the process… being one of emphasis rather than complete invention. In the laboratory, it was found that prolonged exposure to the imprinting object or person was unnecessary. In fact, the attachment could be undermined by too much familiarity.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s visionary 19th-century illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play about limerence at its deadliest. (Available as a print.)

When seen through the lens of these thousands of unambiguous and near-identical case studies — which illuminate limerence as an involuntary reaction to a stimuli still unclear, governed by emotional mechanisms still unclear but clearly and consistently at work — Tennov notes that “it becomes as illogical to favor (or not to favor) limerence as it is to favor (or not favor) eating, elimination, or sneezing.” She writes:

Limerence is not the product of human decision: It is something that happens to us. Its intrusive cognitive components, the obsessional quality that may feel voluntary at the moment but that defies control, seem to be the aspect of limerence in which it differs most from other states.

The most arresting characteristic of limerence — and the one most disabling to the sufferer — is that it takes hold only in conditions that sustain both hope and uncertainty, in a ratio that must not skew too far in either direction, or else limerence dissolves. Tennov contours the paradoxical demand:

For the process to develop fully, some form of uncertainty or doubt, or even some threat to reciprocation appears necessary. There is considerable evidence that an externally imposed obstacle, such as Romeo and Juliet met in the resistance of family and society, may also serve.

[…]

Too early a declaration on the limerent’s part or, on the other hand, too early evidence of reciprocation on LO’s part may prevent the development of the full limerent reaction. Something must happen to break a totally positive interaction. Not that totally positive reactions are without highly redeeming features in themselves; it is only that they stop the progression to full or maximum limerence.

She adds:

However unappealing it may be in a universe conceived as orderly and humane, the fact is undeniable; fear of rejection may cause pain, but it also enhances desire.

[…]

Limerence can live a long life sustained by crumbs. Indeed, overfeeding is perhaps the best way to end it.

A further subtlety of this dual requirement of hope and uncertainty is that — for all of its irrationality, for all of its improbable optimisms and willful blindnesses — limerence, unlike delusion, lives in the locus of the possible. It is, in fact, sustained by that slender thread of possibility fraying from the loom of the improbable. Tennov writes:

Limerent fantasy is rooted in reality — that is, in what the limerent person interprets as reality. Your limerent daydreams may be unlikely, even highly unlikely, but they retain fidelity to the possible.

Light distribution on soap bubble from a 19th-century French science textbook. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

She examines the elementary particles and fundamental forces of limerence:

Limerence is, above all else, mental activity. It is an interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. You admire, you are physically attracted, you see, or think you see (or deem it possible to see under “suitable” conditions), the hint of possible reciprocity, and the process is set in motion.

[…]

Because limerent fantasy depends on how you actually perceive reality, its content, which leads up to and renders plausible the ecstatic finale, varies not only from person to person, but from day to day as new knowledge becomes available.

Across all the limerents Tennov studied, the process follows a basic life-cycle and results in a set number of possible outcomes:

Limerence may begin as a barely perceptible feeling of increased interest in a particular person but one which if nurtured by appropriate conditions can grow to enormous intensity. In most cases, it also declines, eventually to zero or to a low level. At this low level, limerence is either transformed through reciprocation or it is transferred to another person, who then becomes the object of a new limerent passion. Under the best of conditions, the waning of limerence through mutuality is accompanied by the growth of the emotional response more suitably described as love.

The object of limerent desire, Tennov notes again and again, is not physical intimacy but emotional reciprocity — sex with the LO factors in only to the extent that the limerent interprets it as a symbol of reciprocity. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the condition is that no reciprocity of love, whatever its nature or magnitude, can slake the longing for reciprocity of limerence. In fact, limerence most commonly develops in actual and not imagined relationships, often very close ones — deep friendships, or even love-relationships, in which one person is limerent toward the other but the other is nonlimerent.

The complexity, confusion, and suffering limerence inflicts are most intense in relationships where other factors — genuine friendship, shared experience, mutual artistic or intellectual admiration, kindred calling — exist rather independently of limerence, but have been subsumed by it. In such relationships, both the limerent and the LO can suffer greatly in the effort to disentangle one context from the other in order to salvage and reframe in a non-limerent context what is at bottom a deep and valuable connection. This I note both as a synthesis of Tennov’s research and as a lived record of my own experience.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto — a tender French picture-book about the earliest confusions of limerence and soul-friendship.

Tennov highlights the difference between limerent and non-limerent attachment, which might share some major surface manifestations but spring from profoundly different emotional needs:

The person who is not limerent toward you may feel great affection and concern for you, even tenderness, and possibly sexual desire as well. A relationship that includes no limerence may be a far more important one in your life, when all is said and done, than any relationship in which you experienced the strivings of limerent passion. Limerence is not in any way preeminent among types of human attractions or interactions; but when limerence is in full force, it eclipses other relationships.

This asymmetry of feeling creates an asymmetry of responsibility, tilted in the other direction — toward the non-limerent person better capable of willful action and conscientious choice than the disabled limerent. In my own experience, the thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and tenderness with which a person exercises that responsibility — or does not — is one of the most revealing tests of character. Tennov writes:

Knowledge of the limerent state clearly suggests that the nonlimerent LO has certain responsibilities of an ethical kind. Better understanding of what the limerent person is undergoing and how your actions as LO influence that response will help to diminish the pain that the limerent person is experiencing, as well as the suffocating attention that is unpleasant for you.

The most heartbreaking aspect of limerence, the one that best highlights its disabling infestation of the will, is the excruciating self-awareness that haloes it — often so acute as to call to mind the out-of-body experience reported by coma victims who find themselves fully aware of what is going on in the room, even observing their own motionless body as though from some higher vantage point above the hospital bed.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With his permission, Tennov quotes at length from the diaries of one such exceptionally self-aware young man — Fred, one her psychology students, who grew limerent toward a woman he encountered during a research fellowship in France. Writing in the bleak pit of winter, after several months of limerence, Fred records with astonishing lucidity the respite afforded by a temporary disruption of the vital hope/uncertainty ratio that sustains limerence:

I feel a large impassable gap between us across which I must look ridiculous. Thus it is that my image of her image of me as reflected in her behavior and my own, not a change in her qualities (her attractiveness, for example), has produced this new condition of relative indifference towards Laura. I am afraid that this relief is temporary, however, and I will return to being more intensely stricken, but it shows the dampening effect that clear rejection can have. At least it is giving me an interlude in which I can get some work done.

Six tortuous limerent months later, at the peak of summer, he writes in another diary entry that captures the most terrifying aspect not only of limerence but of all love, at some fundamental level:

It seems to me that being romantically attracted to Laura means that I am bending my image of her until it is distorted. Things that might produce an unpleasant picture, I simply do not see. When she appears by relatively objective standards, beautiful and capable, I look long and hard. But when she is not at her best, when I catch her face in an unflattering angle, I turn my eyes away. If she were in love with me, she would do the same, and we might both be aware of the process in the other because we could feel it in ourselves. If that is true, “loving back” is actually furthering a deception. Only the best angles are allowed to show or be seen. To do anything else is to increase the risk of the dreaded rejection. But it is a disservice to a person not to perceive them the way they really are.

Another of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Salome. (Available as a print.)

I hear echoes here of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle, sobering admonition that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” rooted in his teaching that “understanding is love’s other name.” To understand a person is to endeavor to accurately perceive their experience, their sorrows, their joys, their deepest needs as they really are. Limerence, in this sense, is the resignation of understanding.

Tennov identifies only three things that can reliably end limerence:

  • consummation: the bliss of reciprocation is gradually either blended into a lasting love or replaced by less positive feelings
  • starvation: even limerent sensitivity to signs of hope is useless against the onslaught of evidence that LO does not return the limerence
  • transformation: limerence is transferred to a new LO
Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

But while limerence can be debilitating to its sufferer and stressful to the point of trauma for its object, its umbra of inadvertent harm reaches beyond the limerent and the LO — most commonly, and most vulnerably, to the children of limerent parents. Tennov shares the case study of one woman who reflected ruefully in midlife:

Today my children are grown and gone. I’m lucky if they get here on Christmas and call on Mother’s Day. I can tell you that I’d give anything to be back in the tiny apartment with my babies. The ironic and really tragic thing is that when my children were little, I was all wrapped up in my love affairs and unable to give them the time and attention I wish I could look back on.

I remember the summer that Amelia turned three. She was an adorable child. Everyone commented. I was sitting on the porch. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and I was miserable over the rejection. For some reason I remember that Amelia tried to get up on my lap. She wanted me to read her a story. The painful part of the memory is that I turned her away and preferred to sit alone thinking of that horrible man than to care for and enjoy my little girl. How I wish I could get those days back again.

This case study struck me with particular resonance, for I have been that little girl in my own childhood and I have observed the mother’s tendencies in myself as an adult — a disquieting correlation that contours one of the many unmapped territories for further research that Tennov left in her wake: the question of heredity and developmental modeling in the origin of limerence.

Indeed, Tennov ends her revelatory Love and Limerence with optimism for future research, buoyed by a bold defiance of the dated idea that scientific knowledge of reality diminishes its wonder — an idea all the more pervasive in the study of feeling due to our millennia-deep mythologies of love as a separate species of experience. In a sentiment evocative of Ode to a Flower — Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s classic meditation on knowledge and mystery — Tennov argues that scientific inquiry will not “rob us of the ecstasy of reciprocation or of the artistic creations which limerence tends so often to inspire,” and writes:

I do not believe that to know limerence is to destroy it any more than to understand the physics of ionization is to destroy the beauty of the Paris sky.

[…]

Limerence theory is not merely a step toward understanding romantic love; it is also a step toward understanding how we can transcend those aspects of our inborn behavioral tendencies that inhibit our progress in the direction of self-determination… It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.

In an insight of tremendous foresight, presaging the scientific discoveries and still-unfolding mindset reorientation of the half-century since, she adds:

We have watched the field of psychology succumb to invisible pressures to conform to what is now beginning to be recognized as an outdated and inhibiting philosophy, an inordinate and ultimately stultifying disinclination to view ourselves as biological creatures. I believe it is time to reject that philosophy in favor of a new humility which bends to the innermost voices of our fundamental nature, and, in so doing, to shape that nature in accordance with truly human values which can only be discovered when we learn truly what it means to be human.

BP

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