April 16, 2024

Enhancing the chemistry of love

If love needs drugs, is it still love?

It works on prairie voles

Julian Savulescu and two of his colleagues at Oxford University in the UK, Brian D. Earp and Anders Sandberg, have made a case for latter-day love potions in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. Neuroscience research, they say, has shown that love is essentially “an emergent property of a cocktail of ancient neuropeptides and neurotransmitters”. If this is the case, drugs could be used to enhance or diminish romantic relationships.

One promising candidate as a love-potion is the hormone oxytocin. When injected into the brain of a small North American mammal called a prairie vole, they form lifelong pair bonds. When an oxytocin blocker is injected, voles split up and look for new sexual partners. Savulescu et al have been heartened by this experience.

“While ‘love’ is not simply reducible to these brain chemicals or pathways,” they write, “what it is clear by now that these underlying phenomena do much to shape (as well as to respond to) our higher-order romantic experiences, across a wide range of theoretical conceptions.”

It is not wrong to “medicalise” love, they argue.

“If we are prepared to agree that relationship counseling is, or can be, an acceptable form of medicalization—and that insights gleaned from the “scientific” study of factors that promote, or detract from, relationship health and functioning can reasonably be applied in such settings —then it would seem to be important to determine whether (or to what extent) the additional, adjunctive use of a bond-enhancing neurochemical substance would alter the underlying moral equation. Such a substance would not work to create love “magically,” of course, but it might certainly help it along by acting on the underlying substrates of attachment, or by promoting more empathic states of mind.”

Savulescu’s ideas have provoked much comment among bioethicists. In this article they list and refute five common reservations that people have when they are confronted with the idea of love enhancement.

One of the strongest is that the love would not be “authentic”. People who used drugs to bewitch a partner – or to allow themselves to be bewitched – would need a  crutch to participate in the most important dimension of their lives. But Savulescu et al dismiss this. “If the administration of certain love drugs turns out to be effective in promoting states of mind and behavioural dispositions that are conducive to a healthy relationship, then couples may simply have an additional tool at hand to help them pursue their higher-order inter-personal aims.”

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