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Real-Life ‘Love Potions’ Are Coming, But Are They Ethical?

In the Middle Ages, a common trick for getting your crush to like you was the “love cake.” The recipe called for baking the cake while naked, and pressing the dough to your breasts, armpits, and genitals to absorb the sweat. Get your crush to eat your creation, and ideally (sweaty cake notwithstanding) they’d be into you.

The love cake’s 21st century cousin comes, unsurprisingly, from scientists who claim we can use drugs to modulate love, via the brain. There’s a foreseeable future of pharma in which we could target brain chemistry to neuro-enhance relationships. Some drugs, like intranasal oxytocin, already seem to enhance trust and attachment in experiments with humans, though it’s not clear whether those studies will translate to real life and marketable drugs.

Accumulating neurobiological research on lust, attraction, and attachment could soon make love drugs a reality. Following that same logic, we could ease the pain of heartbreak by taking psychoactive drugs—some experts also prescribe painkillers like aspirin or ibuprofen—to treat the pain of heartbreak and reduce feelings of attachment. Still, the idea that “love drugs” could be widespread and available raises concerns about emotional manipulation, or worse.

In the future, it could go something like this. Imagine a couple that’s having relationship trouble. They decide to see a counsellor, and start therapy to work on communication and problem solving. Over the course of therapy, the counsellor brings up a second option: they could choose to take drugs.

Research on relationship-facilitating drugs was carried out in the 1980s, using MDMA.

According to Brian Earp, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, the future of love drugs is more about facilitating love than producing it where it didn’t exist before. “The most likely scenario,” Earp explained to me in an email, “is that drugs could be used to supplement traditional ways of fostering love between partners.”

Earp’s research, along with his colleagues at Oxford, focuses on the ethical issues facing the neuro-enhancement of love and marriage. In the past year, the group has sparked an ongoing debate in the ethics community about the medicalization of love, and whether it’s a force for good or evil. Their answer: It depends.

“There are likely some couples who would greatly benefit from being able to use the fruits of science, and medical technologies, in conjunction with traditional therapies/approaches, in an attempt to improve their relationships,” Earp explained. “Our argument is basically that, given the importance of relationships to people's flourishing, it makes sense at the very least to study these scientific/technological possibilities, especially since our relationships are already to an extent medicalized.”

Couples’ counselling can be a form of medical intervention in itself. What’s more, scientists recognize that relationships do confer health benefits (being married makes you more likely to survive cancer, and less likely to have a heart attack), and the lack of attachments is seen as a risk factor for disease, like smoking and obesity.

Research on relationship-facilitating drugs was carried out as early as the 1980s, using MDMA. But since the drug was banned in the US in 1985, those experiments fell out of favour. Earp and his co-authors at Oxford have argued that reinstating these research programs could prove worthwhile.

“As the taboo against researching [MDMA] wears off, we might find that there could be a safe, therapeutic use for it, in a controlled setting,” Earp said. “Right now we don't know enough about its effects beyond those anecdotes from the 1980s to say anything definitive. And so our argument is that research into the topic should be strongly considered (not that people should start experimenting with the drug).”

Research in the last twenty years has also drawn links between romantic attraction and neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. In particular, scientists have mapped significant overlap between obsessive-compulsive disorder and romantic attraction, where people develop obsessive and intrusive thoughts about their loved one, and even show similarly low levels of serotonin to people with OCD, compared to healthy controls.

There’s something very concerning about the idea of being forced to take emotion-altering drugs.

That’s where “anti-love” drugs come in—drugs that aim to diminish the obsession or pain associated with love, to achieve a so-called “chemical breakup.” There’s evidence that SSRIs, which can be used to reduce obsessive thoughts in OCD, could also be effective against heartbreak. The hypothetical applications for anti-love drugs, according to Earp and his colleagues, include ending extra-marital relationships, unrequited love leading to despair or depression, love for an abusive partner, pedophilia, or love for a cult leader.

There are risks to medicalizing "love," and to providing pharmacological solutions to complex interpersonal problems. There’s also something very off-putting about the possibility of being forced to take emotion-altering drugs. Earp and his colleagues have considered this in the context of conversion therapy for minors, the treatment that was presented as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, and can be extremely harmful.

Aside from coercive uses of these drugs, there’s also a risk of becoming dependent on them to solve all our problems.

“They could also be used as a ‘crutch’ to avoid having to deal with the underlying issues that are really at the root of the relationship problems,” Earp explained. “They could be used to help someone get over a relationship too quickly, and therefore not take the time to really reflect on what happened and learn from it.”

Sometimes, it’s better to just break up.

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