– You have written about the possibility of using “anti-love biotechnology” as a treatment. When would it be warranted?
Breaking up is hard to do. If drugs could ease the pain, when should we use them, asks neuro-ethicist Brian D. Earp
For your research, how do you define love? We tend to think of love as a phenomenon grounded in ancient neurochemical systems that evolved for our ancestors’ reproductive needs. There is more to our experience of love than brain chemistry, of course, but those brain-level phenomena play a central role.
The idea of love as a drug is a cliché, but does it have any characteristics of addiction? Recent brain studies show extensive parallels between the effects of certain addictive drugs and experiences of being in love. Both activate the brain’s reward system, can overwhelm us so that we forget about other things and can inspire withdrawal when they are no longer available. It seems it isn’t just a cliché that love is like a drug: in terms of effects on the brain, they may be neurochemically equivalent.
You have written about the possibility of using “anti-love biotechnology” as a treatment. When would it be warranted? The idea of treating someone for an addiction to a bad relationship is something to be very cautious about. So we end up stacking the cards in favour of autonomy – the voluntary use of any “anti-love” intervention.
You can imagine a situation in which a person’s experience of love is so profoundly harmful, yet so irresistible, that it undermines their ability to think rationally for themselves. In a case of domestic abuse, that can be life-threatening. But even then, we wouldn’t recommend forcing drug-based treatment on someone against their will: non-biochemical interventions should be tried first.
So when would this type of treatment be ideal? Some people in dangerous relationships know they need to get out, and even want to, but are unable to break their emotional attachment. If, for example, a woman in an abusive relationship could access medication that would help her break ties with her abuser, then, assuming it was safe and effective, we think she could be justified in taking it.
How might an anti-love drug work? The science here is very new, so we don’t yet have a complete answer, but there are several possibilities – some based on side effects of drugs already on the market (see “How to fix a broken heart“).
If we develop anti-love drugs, should anyone going through a break-up have access? It is important to be careful about making broad recommendations. There are some people who are so devastated for such a long time after a break-up that they can’t move on. Part of this might be depression, for which we already have many treatments.
But of course there are lots of ways to get over someone, including strategies that have been tried for centuries. Creating physical distance and not spending time with the person is a good start. A modern trick is to stop looking at the person’s Facebook photos.
But if other ways have failed, and anti-love drugs could help to alleviate suffering and prepare a person to move on with life, there could be good reasons for using them.
Isn’t there danger in medicalising potentially valuable emotions? One concern about medicalisation is that people will turn too quickly to a drug to solve their problems, preventing them from dealing with the real source of their suffering. If I get out of a bad relationship, maybe I need to reflect on what happened, not pop a pill so I can rush into a new relationship.
Do you foresee other ethical problems? Another worry is that drug companies might start to tell us we have relationship “diseases” so they can sell us drugs we don’t need. They do this now with female sexual dysfunction to create a market for a female Viagra.
But part of the problem is that we live in a society that tells us we have to be sick to gain access to medicine to get better. What if a drug simply helps improve well-being? If a drug could help a person who is still heartbroken a year after a break-up, there could be a moral argument for its use – whether we want to call that a medical problem or just real life.
Do you know if anyone is already using anti-love drugs, unofficially? In Israel, some ultra-Orthodox Jews have prescribed antidepressants to young yeshiva students to reduce libido, using the side effect of the drug as its main purpose. It is unclear whether the students were coerced, or requested it to manage feelings of shame. Either way, it is a troubling development.
Do you worry that the idea of love addiction as a treatable medical problem could be hijacked for things like gay conversion therapy? That is a huge concern. But I have to distinguish between coercive use on minors and voluntary use by adults. For minors, it should be impermissible, and even illegal. For adults, it’s harder. In principle, people should be free to decide for themselves. But in some places, the pressure of anti-gay bigotry makes it unlikely that individuals would be truly acting autonomously.
Has viewing love as an addiction changed your own ideas about romance? Studying how love has related to marriage over the course of history had a bigger effect on me than my understanding of the actual neurochemistry. In our society, we take it for granted that marriage should be based on love but, until recently, it was predominately an economic and political institution.
And this new way of doing things is not all bunnies and roses. The brain systems that undergird feelings of love and attachment are actually quite fragile. They didn’t evolve to sustain exclusive relationships over decades, but to promote reproductive success. This huge disconnect should inspire some soul-searching for our society. We need to think critically about how to reconcile our ideals about love and our underlying brain chemistry.
How should we rethink our notions of love? When there is a disconnect between your biology and your values, some people change their values: many people are exploring non-traditional arrangements such as open relationships or serial monogamy.
But it will be different for different people. For those who have decided that they value a life-long, monogamous relationship, maybe the strategy should be to manage their psychobiology instead – using drugs that enhance attraction rather than diminish it. Maybe sometimes we don’t need a cure for love – we need to give it a helping hand.
This article appeared in print under the headline “A dangerous prescription?”
Read more: “Cure for love: How to fix a broken heart”
Brian D. Earp is a cognitive scientist and ethicist at the University of Oxford. With Julian Savulescu, he is writing a book on the potential for neuroenhancement of love and marriage
- 13 February 2014 by David Robson
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