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The Brave New World of Chemical Romance

How love drugs will shape the future of our relationships.


With Hamilton on my mind, I had a fanciful thought while reading the new book Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships. The Founding Father, stressed and tired and focused on getting his bill for a national bank through Congress, could have saved himself a lot of grief if, in his moment of weakness with the temptress Maria Reynolds, he’d had an anti-love drug to cool his loins. Instead his response to her feminine wiles, as conjured by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is to pray, “Lord, show me how to say no to this.” It didn’t prove effective.

Love drugs harken back to fairytale fantasies about potions and spells, but the notion isn’t purely fiction. The authors of Love Drugs—Julian Savulescu, an Oxford philosopher, and Brian Earp, a Yale doctoral candidate in philosophy and psychology—make plain that our brain’s love, lust, and attachment systems can be affected by real-life neuro-technologies. With cogent arguments, vivid experimental detail, and engaging storytelling, the authors show that chemical interventions to foster, enhance, and diminish love will only become more sophisticated as scientists discern the biochemical nature of the romantic bond.

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Aficionados of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Brave New World will find Love Drugs both entertaining and sobering. In fact, Love Drugs was almost titled Brave New Love. “There is a part of me that still prefers Brave New Love,” Earp says. “I think a lot of people think this is a pro-love drugs book. We tried not to do that. This is not ‘science will fix all of our problems.’ A title like Brave New Love says, ‘There’s a real danger here.’ Maybe if I could wave a magic wand I’d go back to Brave New Love. But it is what it is.”

I was excited to speak to Earp, a research fellow in the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford. I first learned of him in 2011 from YouTube. At the time, Earp was getting his master’s degree in psychology at Oxford, which was where philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris happened to be giving a talk on his then-new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Earp, skeptical of the ostensible novelty of his thesis, incisively asked him to defend it. The recording of the exchange has almost 2 million views. In our conversation, Earp didn’t disappoint. He was as thoughtful and careful and smart in his responses to me as I expected him to be.

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Higher Love: Brian Earp (above) says his intellectual foray into romantic relationships, with Love Drugs, is consistent with the wider transhumanist tradition of considering how we can “use new technologies to intervene in our biology to help us meet our higher goals.”Rob Judges

What are the possible effects of drugs on love?

One possibility is that people will begin to see that love is something that is at least partly in our command. Many believe the opposite is the case, that love is a mysterious thing that just happens to you if you meet the right person. You might fall into and potentially fall out of love, but there’s not much you can really do about it. There’s something about this view that is potentially immature, in that it may prevent us from exercising our agency to try to work on the love that we share with someone to whom we’re committed. We’re never going to have a magic potion, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that just causes you to feel a certain kind of love for somebody. But we can nudge the probability that we’ll have a certain kind of loving relationship with someone, or they will be able to enhance certain aspects of that loving relationship.

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What biological chemicals underpin love?

The attachment system is underwritten by oxytocin and vasopressin, and some other neurochemicals. Lots of things go into libido. One of them is testosterone, and testosterone levels can be manipulated. Similarly, serotonin is involved in attraction. People have noticed that there are similarities in certain aspects of feeling in the early stages of attraction to somebody and in obsessive compulsive disorder. Both of these things seem to turn on serotonin levels.

How do you tweak these biological systems?

You can’t tweak these things like independent knobs. Instead we have these really big blunt-style effects that operate across multiple systems. If you depress libido with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, for example, you can lose interest in being physically intimate with your partner. That means you’re not going to be releasing oxytocin as you would naturally. That has potential to degrade your attachment bond over time. You can start to have a looping effect. On the other hand, if you’re riddled with depression, and you’re among the subset of people for whom SSRIs are helpful in treating the symptoms of depression, maybe you’re lucky that the SSRI doesn’t diminish your libido. In that case, one and the same drug could potentially be a relationship helper.

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Psilocybin seems to temporarily wash out prior relationship assumptions so that you are seeing anew.

You write about the potential benefits of psychoactive drugs. How can they affect our love systems?

The psychedelics and MDMA, or ecstasy, are more global drugs. You wouldn’t use them for a precise intervention on a subroutine of your neurochemistry. Rather they have a global effect in altering our disposition toward our partner and our emotions, where we can engage meaningfully with the content of our relationship. MDMA can cause feelings of warmth and closeness, at least under the influence of the drug. But it can also cause a sense of openness to talking about emotions that otherwise might be scary to talk about. People in recent trials say they feel more loving toward those around them, more interested in taking things from other people’s perspective, and more mentally flexible, so that if somebody says something that might have hurt their feelings before, they don’t immediately take it in just that one way.

What’s going on in our brains that might explain how psychedelics can help our love lives?

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Our view is the brain is a big Bayesian prediction mechanism. We try to predict what’s going on in the world as efficiently as possible. Once we notice certain patterns or regularities, we just store that as an expectation. Then we continue to interpret the world in light of those prior beliefs. But some of these prior beliefs can just be ruts that we get stuck in. I’ve had a certain number of arguments with my partner, and I just start to interpret everything that they say in light of my prior conclusions about what was going on, rather than being able to hear them in a new way. I just can’t be bothered or I’m too defensive or whatever it is. What psilocybin seems to do is temporarily wash out some of these prior assumptions so that you are seeing anew, you’re taking in information without prejudging it as much as you might have in the past. So for people who are stuck in a rut, who can’t seem to talk their way out of a rut, having a drug that directly suppresses these problematic priors and allows you to look at the world with fresh eyes could be really helpful.

What’s the danger of love drugs?

It seems like love drugs are ripe for abuse. They’re not a panacea. They’re not something that just everybody should try. They have to be used under particular circumstances, where people have been properly screened. And we have to keep developing the evidence for when, and under what conditions, they’ll be helpful rather than harmful. It’s easy to get carried away because some of these drugs, the psychedelics, are very powerful. Many people who try them feel transformed by them. We need to decide what we want our future to look like. We haven’t even taken care to properly study the interpersonal effects of medications we already use. That’s a risk that is unfolding under our very noses. For the most part, we’re just stumbling along without thinking carefully about the ethical and the normative implications of using love drugs.

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What does a drug-assisted therapy session look like?

There’s a small pilot study happening where some of the researchers who are involved in psilocybin for PTSD trials are bringing in the PTSD sufferer’s partner, and both of them are undergoing psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. A couple first has multiple interactions with a therapist to establish the therapeutic relationship. They’ll talk about what they hope to get out of the experience. They’ll be counseled on the effects these drugs can have. Part of the effect of the drug is how you relate to what’s going on when you’re in an altered state of consciousness in a therapeutic context. Then, separately, each one will be made comfortable, probably given eyeshades and some headphones, and they’ll take a dose of the drug. With the therapist there to help respond to any concerns that may arise, the couple will reflect on their own emotions. They will talk with the therapist and then with each other, when they’re ready, about how they’re going to implement whatever lessons they feel they’ve learned as the effects of the drug are wearing off. In some cases, people report that six months or a year after their sessions they still feel more mentally flexible and more able to deal with conflict in a productive manner.

MDMA can cause a sense of openness to talking about emotions that otherwise might be scary to talk about.

If someone says that using love drugs is an easy solution that avoids the tough work of a loving relationship, how do you respond?

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One reason why people have that worry is they think that if something feels like a quick fix, it simply won’t work or won’t be effective over the long run. Or it will be a replacement for dealing with the underlying issues that are really important. I would agree with that. But if there’s a drug that enhances your ability to engage with what’s really going on with the relationship, and that therefore makes it more likely that the changes you make are going to be long-lasting and rooted in a genuine understanding of what’s good for the both of you, then it’s harder to raise that kind of criticism.

You worry that interventions in the biological side of love could be used to homogenize the sexual landscape. How could that be done?

Jewish yeshiva students, for example, are being prescribed SSRIs supposedly to treat their depression. But the reason why they’re depressed is because they have same-sex attraction or desire to masturbate, and that’s forbidden in their communities. They’re constantly feeling shame. And then, as a “helpful” side effect of this drug treatment, it also will likely lower their libido, which will make it easier for them to not masturbate or not want to become sexually involved with the wrong person, according to the norms of the society. This is an example where a drug is currently being used to have anti-sexual effects on sexual-orientation minorities within religious communities. And it’s quite explicit, the point of it. It’s not a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. The psychiatrists and the rabbis are getting together to lower the libido with the drug.

Are you skeptical about whether love drugs can be used, developed, and marketed in an ethical, responsible manner, given the sort of profit-driven pharmaceutical environment we have right now?

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Sure. There will almost certainly be problematic pharmaceutical involvement in any development of any new drug. We need to wake up, and figure out what our response is to the ability of pharmaceutical companies to pathologize our lives as a way of hawking their wares.

How can the pharmaceutical industry be better suited to providing helpful love drugs?

One way to diffuse the problem of pharmaceutical companies coming up with diseases that they can use to explain why people need their drug, is by decoupling the concept of applying a medical technology and treating a disease. We support an enhancement model of medicine, where we think treating a disease is just one of the ways that we can improve our lives with technology. If I go to work on my relationship with a couples’ counselor, I’m not admitting to having a relationship disorder. The same thing should be true for drug use for enhancement purposes. If there’s a way that a person or a couple could have access to a drug that, if used in the right therapeutic context, could help improve their life, we need to talk about what that model would look like in society, whereby we don’t first have to conjure up some sort of disorder that we think that they have, so that we can justify giving them access to the drug.

Does the idea of a love drug suggest that love is ultimately biological?

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No. I like how the philosopher Carrie Jenkins understands love in her book What Is Love: And What It Could Be. She doesn’t collapse into saying love is just an animalistic drive. Like so many things, love’s a biopsychosocial phenomenon. Much of our cultural narrative about love is based on psychological, subjective, experiential aspects. It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve even been able to see what’s going on biologically and neurochemically. She says any full understanding of love is going to require that we appreciate what’s going on at these different levels of analysis. How we both experience and express our own emotions surrounding love is shaped by cultural factors, and that can have effects down on the level of biology and back up again.

Brian Gallagher is an associate editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.

Lead image: Libellule / Shutterstock

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