Love: Real or Better Living Through Chemistry?

From the first time I was on an amusement park roller coaster I could sense that the sensation in my levi’s was out of the ordinary.  As I grew older the scent of jasmine and femininity intertwined in my mind to marvelous effect.  I won’t bore you with the entire catalog of the galaxy of emotions and physicality I felt growing up.  You may have an even more glorious repertoire than I, but who’s competing? 

In the years between roller coasters and the present we may have become jaded or the novelty of passion surrendered to passing time.  Fortunately, emotion is more than just magic, it is chemistry.  What may have been (to some) an overabundance of chemicals in youth may have become a dry season over time.  Time is an erosive force that can level mountains or suck the life from a relationship.  We expect that our relationships  are multidimensional enough to survive what time will take but should we settle for that if chemistry can restore, if only for a while, what time has taken?

The following essay raises some interesting issues/ – Carlos

The Case for Using Drugs to Enhance Our Relationships (and Our Break-Ups)

By Ross Andersen, Jan 31 2013, 1:43 PM ET

A philosopher argues that taking love-altering substances might not just be a good idea, but a moral obligation.

lovedrugGeorge Bernard Shaw once satirized marriage as “two people under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, who are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”

Yikes. And yet, nearly all human cultures value some version of marriage, as a nurturing emotional foundation for children, but also because marriage can give life an extra dimension of meaning. But marriage is hard, for biochemical reasons that may be beyond our control.  What if we could take drugs to get better at love?
Perhaps we could design “love drugs,” pharmaceutical cocktails that could boost affection between partners, whisking them back to the exquisite set of pleasures that colored their first years together. The ability to do this kind of fine-tuned emotional engineering is beyond the power of current science, but there is a growing field of research devoted to it. Some have even suggested developing “anti-love drugs” that could dissolve abusive relationships, or reduce someone’s attachment to a charismatic cult leader. Others just want a pill to ease the pain of a wrenching breakup.
Evolutionary biologists tell us that we owe the singular bundle of feelings we call “love” to natural selection. As human brains grew larger and larger, the story goes, children needed more and more time to develop into adults that could fend for themselves. A child with two parents around was privy to extra resources and protection, and thus stood a better chance of reaching maturity. The longer parents’ chemical reward systems kept them in love, the more children they could shepherd to reproductive age. That’s why the neural structures that form love bonds between couples were so strongly selected for. It’s also why our relationships seem to come equipped with a set of invisible biochemical handrails: they’re meant to support us through the inevitable trials that attend the creation of viable offspring.

“Our relationships come equipped with a set of invisible biochemical handrails”

The problem for us modern, long-lived humans is that natural selection is only interested in reproductive fitness. Once your kids can make their own kids, natural selection’s work is finished. It doesn’t care whether your marriage remains emotionally satisfying into your golden years. But if the magic of love resides in the brain, an organ whose mysterious workings we are slowly starting to unravel, there might be a workaround.
At first blush, love may seem like a poor prospect for pharmacological intervention. The reflexive dualist in us wants to say that romantic relationships are matters of the soul, and that souls ought to be free of medical tinkering. Oxford ethicist Brian Earp argues that we should resist these intuitions, and be open to the upswing in human well-being that successful love drugs could bring about. Over a series of several papers, Earp and his colleagues, Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu, make a convincing case that couples should be free to use “love drugs,” and that in some cases, they may be morally obligated to do so. I recently caught up with Earp and his colleagues by email to ask them about this fascinating ethical frontier. What follows is a condensed version of our exchange.
What is the current thinking among evolutionary biologists as to how love—or adult pair bonding—evolved?
From the perspective of evolutionary biology, love is a complex neurobiological phenomenon that has been wired into us by the forces of evolution. It makes heavy use of the brain’s reward systems, and its ability to bring together (and keep together) human beings–from prehistoric times until the present day–has played a major role in the survival of our species.
In terms of natural selection, the working consensus among evolutionary biologists is that the human adult pair bond probably developed out of earlier structures involved in creating and sustaining feelings of attachment between mothers and their infants. Evolution likes to make use of existing systems for new purposes. In this case, the shift might have been driven by the heightened importance of paternal care for offspring with bigger and bigger brains over generations of human evolution. These burgeoning baby brains took longer to reach maturity than their more ancestral counterparts, leaving the infant vulnerable and underdeveloped for extended periods of time. The idea is that if parents fell in love and remained together during this fragile period for their offspring, their own genetic fitness would be enhanced.
The anthropologist Helen Fisher has famously argued that “love” is not a single straightforward emotion, but an emergent suite of motivational states that stem from underlying systems for lust, attraction, and attachment. In her theory–one of a number of “biological” theories of love with quite a bit of overlap between them–the lust system promotes mating with a range of promising partners; the attraction system guides us to choose and prefer a particular partner; and the attachment system fosters long-term bonding, encouraging couples to cooperate and stay together until their parental duties have been discharged. These universal systems are then hypothesized to form a biological foundation on which the cultural and individual variants of sexual, romantic, and longer-term love are built.
What scientific evidence do we have that the difficulties people face in modern relationships can be successfully addressed with pharmaceuticals?
Modern relationships are challenging for a whole range of reasons, and these reasons might be very different from one couple to the next. Drug-based treatments aren’t always going to be the best approach, and sometimes they should even be avoided. Putting a chemical band-aid on a violent or abusive relationship, for example, would be an extremely bad idea. But we do know that in at least some cases, states of the brain that are susceptible to being pharmacologically altered may have something to do with the interpersonal difficulties couples face.
To give an obvious example, just think of a marriage in which one partner suffers from severe depression. As anyone who’s been in that situation can tell you, chronic depression in one or both members of a committed partnership can drag the whole relationship down. Addressing the root of the problem, in this case through the use of anti-depressant pharmaceuticals if necessary, could make a big difference for some couples.
For another example, consider the widespread use of Viagra to treat male impotence, a problem that prevents some couples, especially older couples, from having sex. Lack of sex reduces oxytocin levels, and reduced oxytocin levels can degrade a couple’s romantic bond. If a drug-based treatment could help the couple restore a healthy sex life, this could improve their chances of sustaining a well-functioning relationship.
Beate Ditzen and her colleagues at the University of Zurich have shown that oxytocin nasal spray can facilitate positive communication–and reduce stress levels–in romantic couples engaged in an argument. Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” for its role in sustaining mother-infant and romantic attachment bonds, increased the ratio of positive to negative communication behaviors and facilitated a drop in cortisol levels after the conflict. These factors have been shown to play a major role in predicting long-term relationship survival. While commentators like Ed Yong have recently emphasized that oxytocin can have a “dark side” as well–for example, by promoting in-group favoritism–the key is to figure out which people, which situations, and which ways of administering the hormone will maximize its effectiveness and minimize any troubling side-effects. We’re working on some research right now to sort these conditions out.
In earlier decades, MDMA (ecstasy) was sometimes used in couple’s therapy to boost empathy and improve emotional communication skills. While this sort of use would be illegal today, there has been a recent resurgence of scientific interest in possible therapeutic uses of MDMA, for example to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. More research is needed, of course, but there is no reason why it should not be carried out, carefully and ethically, with proper social, procedural, and legal safeguards in place.
You argue that “love drugs” can help us address the tension between our moral values and our evolved psychobiological natures. Where does that tension manifest itself most obviously in relationships today? How have things changed since our basic sexual and relational drives evolved?
If you look at this in the context of evolutionary biology, you realize that in order to maximize the survival of their genes, parents need to have emotional systems that keep them together until their children are sufficiently grown–but, what happens after that is of no concern to natural selection. As Donald Symons has written, “in analyzing the psychological underpinnings of marriage [we should] keep in mind that Homo sapiens is the product of evolution … we are designed to promote gene [survival], not individual survival, and reproductive [success], not marital success.” Since we now outlive our ancestors by decades, the evolved pair-bonding instincts upon which modern relationships are built often break down or dissolve long before “death do us part.”

“Since we now outlive our ancestors by decades, the evolved pair-bonding instincts upon which modern relationships are built often break down or dissolve long before ‘death do us part.'”

We see this in the high divorce rates and long term relationship break up rates in countries where both partners enjoy freedom–especially economic freedom. We are simply not built to pull off decades-long relationships in the modern world. Nature designed us to be together for a while, but not forever–and once we push beyond the natural childrearing boundary, we are, in a sense, living on borrowed time.
Another major tension comes from our non-monogamous impulses. Humans are rare among mammals in that we practice at least some form of social monogamy. But there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that sex outside of the primary parenting bond was common throughout our evolutionary history, and would have been to the reproductive advantage of both males and females of our species. Jealousy seems to have deep roots as well, so there is nothing particularly new about feelings of sexual possessiveness–but the conscious, socially enshrined value-expectation that both husbands and wives should remain 100% sexually exclusive to one another for decades in a row, and that failure to meet this goal should entail the end of the relationship, is certainly a more recent invention. Adultery is one of the leading causes of marriage failure.
You point out that married couples should have the freedom to use love-enhancing drugs if they so wish, but you also go a step further, arguing that there are circumstances where married couples ought to take them. What are the most compelling of those circumstances?
Imagine a couple that is thinking about breaking up or getting a divorce, but they have young children who would likely be harmed by their parents’ separation. In this situation, there are vulnerable third parties involved, and we have argued that parents have a responsibility–all else being equal–to preserve and enhance their relationships for the sake of their children, at least until the children have matured and can take care of themselves. One way to do this, of course, would be to attend couple’s therapy and see if the relationship problems could be meaningfully resolved through “traditional” methods. But what if this strategy isn’t working? If love drugs ever become safely and cheaply available; if they could be shown to improve love, commitment, and marital well-being–and thereby lessen the chance (or the need) for divorce; if other interventions had been tried and failed; and if side-effects or other complications could be minimized, then we think that some couples might have an obligation to give them a try. Of course, we aren’t suggesting that anyone should be forced to take love drugs–or any drugs–against their will. But we do think that when children are involved, the stakes become higher for finding a workable solution to relationship difficulties between the parents.
What if “love drugs” only serve to prop up fading cultural institutions? Some might argue that monogamy is outdated, or a bad fit with human nature, and that rather than pharmacologically altering ourselves to accommodate it, we should jettison the whole thing instead. What would you say to them?
Whenever individuals–or societies–experience a mismatch between their values and human nature, they face a choice. They can give up or amend their values, accept a contradiction between their values and their impulses or behaviors, or they can try to modify or manage human nature.
This “management” can happen in different ways. It might involve shaping the physical, social, and legal environment to incentivize value-consistent behavior and disincentivize value-inconsistent behavior.  Or it might involve the use of biotechnology (such as love drugs in the case of monogamy) to modify the source of the behavior directly–or some combination of the above. Which course to take for any given mismatch depends upon a huge range of factors, and there are often good arguments for different approaches depending on the details of the given case.
As a baseline, we have argued for something called the “principle of default natural ethics.” This just means that, given the choice, we should try to adopt values that are as consistent as possible with human nature, so that we can avoid troubling side-effects that come from unnatural suppression and heavy-handed regulation of basic instincts: just think of the recent sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and consider some obvious reasons why that tragedy might have come about. Sometimes, following the principle of default natural ethics means that we should jettison our social institutions–especially when they are so far out of synch with our human dispositions as to be totally unworkable, or when they end up creating bigger problems than they were designed to solve in the first place. This is probably part of the reason why we’ve moved past communism as a model for social and political organization: it seemed, at least to many people, to make a lot of sense on paper, but in the real world it ran up against too many deep facts about the way that people actually work.
But communism was an experiment, both radical and recent. Monogamy, on the other hand, or at least some form of it, has been a part of human societies for a much longer time, so we have to be more careful about how we deal with its problematic features–most notably the gap it creates between the ideal of sexual exclusivity and the reality of human promiscuity.
Some people think that we should give up on monogamy, and there are plausible arguments for this view. In fact, one possibility is that love drugs could be used to eliminate jealousy rather than the impulse to stray–and for individual couples, this might indeed be a worthwhile strategy. For couples who are committed to polyamory, for example, jealousy would seem to be the odd man out: it conflicts with the polyamorists’ higher-order goals for sexual openness.

We obviously cannot set the moral priorities for any given relationship. But in making a more general argument, we note that most couples as a matter of fact value sexual fidelity and make an explicit promise to hold to it.  And at least when children are involved, we think that this promise may be morally justified, since extramarital sex can lead to extramarital love that would divert time and energy directly away from existing offspring. On the other hand, when children are not an issue, when there are good arguments for non-monogamy for a particular couple, or when non-monogamous social institutions have a good chance of contributing to human welfare in a given culture or community, then we don’t see any reason why people should go out of their way to “prop up” problematic social norms through the u

– Ross Andersen is an Atlantic correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He is also the Science Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and a contributor to The Economist.

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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