The Biology of Love

Reviewed Publisher: 
Amherst, NY: Prometheus. 364 pages. ISBN: 1573928291.
Reviewed Title: 
The Biology of Love (2000)
Reviewed Author: 

Love, argues Janov in The Biology of Love, is a neurochemical event. Love consists of specific hormones and is embodied in specific brain structures. Love begins in the womb, literally shapes our brains, and determines how we think, feel and act throughout life. Love determines the state of our health and the length of our lives.

Womblife, for Janov, is critical to the development of personality, mental health and illness, and sexual orientation. Love and affection during this early critical period help the nervous system to develop properly, and to produce serotonin and other repressive brain hormones. The "love imprint" allows for proper development in utero, which radiates positively throughout our lives.

While acknowledging that there are genetic and environmental factors, Janov focuses on the negative biological factors that are imprinted upon the fetus. The absence of love adversely affects the nervous and hormonal systems, leaving a "toxic brain environment" that is less able to effect repression (those familiar with Janov's earlier writings may be surprised at this late praise for the biology of repression). Janov insists that homosexuality, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's are among the myriad of afflictions that originate in the womb. Maternal stress, intrauterine trauma, alcohol and tranquilizers act as teratogens that alter fetal biology-due in part to the intrauterine levels of serotonin and dopamine-and to predispose to later mental illness. So what are the particular biological structures and mechanisms of love?

The right cerebral hemisphere, insists Janov, is "the hemisphere of love." The limbic system is responsible for processing and organizing emotion; the hippocampus contains the history of feeling while the amygdala, the focal point of raw emotion, allows us to process and feel feelings. And what about the "hormones of love?" Oxytocin is the main ingredient in maternal behavior, attachment and bonding; it calms, helps repress pain and anxiety, and allows men to sustain long-term monogamous relationships. Vasopressin, involved in arousal and aggression, promotes paternal feelings and social bonding. Serotonin, a blocking agent, aids in the inhibition of anxiety and the repression of pain; it produces comfort and satisfaction, and helps keep imprinted impulses in check. Dopamine, an excitatory "feel good" chemical, is said to rise in response to physical affection; it makes us alert, keeps us vigilant, and produces pleasure. Prolactin contributes to maternal feelings.

Not surprisingly, The Biology of Love is also about primal therapy. The goal of the therapy is "pleasure, contentment, and a good life," all of which result from making the unconscious conscious. Janov still uses darkened, padded therapy offices. But he refuses to describe his techniques, claiming that they take six years to learn and that "making them public runs the risk of abuse." He claims that he now measures all patients' vital signs before and after every session (although he fails to specify which vital signs). And Janov continues to praise Freud's mechanistic "hydraulic model" of mental and sexual energy, to denigrate dreams and, with less emphasis on curing neurosis, concedes that "reliving normalizes" ("normalization" is the process by which physiological parameters, skewed by primal pain to extreme highs and lows, become more moderate). One surprise, though, is the absolute omission of "brain maps," the celebrated centerpiece of his last book (Janov, 1996).

Proper primal therapy, instructs Janov, takes time. "One feeling at a time" is a principle that guides therapeutic practice. Janov doesn't start therapy with "original pain" (i.e., early-sometimes even prebirth-traumatic experiences) and won't let patients go into feelings he deems "too strong." He claims that he isn't looking for birth trauma, nor is he expecting to find it. Patients usually begin by discussing something in the present and, in sessions averaging two to three hours, may drop into one overarching (read "generalized") feeling. "Sinking into deep and remote past events," notes Janov, "does not and should not happen in the first weeks of therapy." Whatever hope there may once have been for a brief primal therapy, Janov now clearly and unapologetically admits that this is a long-term process.

Primal therapy has, in some ways, become increasingly humanisticand humble. The therapeutic relationship itself is now recognized and valued. Therapist warmth, support, and empathy are more highly prized than brilliance. The therapy involves very little therapist intervention, and patients are never told to scream or what to feel. Palliative measures, moreover, are sometimes taken with patients. Therapists sometimes hold the patient's hand (though at other times may administer tranquilizers!) to ease their pain, and to allow their feelings to be integrated. Isolated or withdrawn patients are sometimes encouraged to get animals as a first step in giving and getting affection. Therapists talk more during "postsession," discussing client's insights and connections, and helping them integrate feelings into their lives. While primal therapy is still considered a powerful treatment for a variety of maladies, it no longer obviates the need for counseling, child guidance, or marital advice. This, is my opinion, is long overdue and correct.

In these dreary times of corporate managed care and polypharmacology, it's certainly heartening to see a new work by Janov, the bold and innovative thinker and psychotherapist. The Biology of Love is a showcase of earlier insights, assertions, and accomplishments. In addition, there are some new ideas and assertions about love and therapy, as well as thirteen original (though not very helpful) case presentations on primal therapy. And one must acknowledge Janov's growing microhumility. In the current volume, for example, he acknowledges that he is deeply indebted to Drs. Paul MacLean and Allan Schore for their contributions concerning the brain, and to Drs. Frederick Leboyer and Michel Odent for their important ideas on how birthing practices should be changed. Moreover (and uncharacteristically), he shares a bit more personal information-including a cameo of his own traumatic birth anoxia and subsequent birth feelings. But Janov's "credibility problems"-i.e., his habit of extrapolating far beyond established facts, and making numerous and unsubstantiated claims of therapeutic success-clearly continue (cf. Mithers, 1994), and The Biology of Love reduces sublime human love to the biology of hormones and hemispheres. Perhaps we should ask whether Janov's biological reductions enrich, or perhaps trivialize, our understanding of love and the mystery of life.

Janov, A. (1996). Why you get sick and how you get well: The healing power of feelings West Hollywood, CA: Dove.

Mithers, C. L. (October, 1994). Letter to the editor. Buzz.

* Portions of this review previously appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of the International Primal Association Newsletter.

Publication Date: 
12/2001