Tue, Feb 11, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Love as a drug: can romance be medically prescribed?

Love drugs could soon be a reality and used alongside therapy to help heal broken relationships

By Andrew Anthony  /  The Guardian

A couple kiss on Valentine’s Day in 2018 in New York City.

Photo: AFP

For some time, it has been widespread medical practice to treat a range of psychological conditions, including depression and anxiety, with what might be called mind-altering drugs, namely selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which, as the name suggests, affect levels of serotonin in the brain.

But there’s one mental category that isn’t considered appropriate for any kind of biomedical intervention. It’s arguably the most talked about of all human states, the cause of much of our finest art, literature and music, and it is celebrated or, depending on your view, commercially exploited once again on Friday: love.

It may be a many splendored thing, but love is a condition for which there is famously no cure. All you need is love, as the song said, but money can’t buy you it. It’s viewed as an emotional ideal and yet the source of untold pain and suffering. Ask any 10 people what love is and you’re sure to get 10 different answers.

Unsurprisingly, given that it is the stuff of romance, we tend to romanticize it. Millions of words have been spilled in trying to describe the feeling, but not many In their new book, Love Is the Drug, Oxford ethicists Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu point out that this neglected aspect of love is just as important as its social or psychological structures. Intuitively, perhaps, we’ve always known this. After all, how do we explain the lack of interest felt on a new date? “There was no chemistry.”

Yet while we have largely come to accept that drugs that affect the brain have a part to play in treating psychological illnesses, the idea that the same approach could apply to love goes against the grain. We think of love as natural and healthy and therefore not something that is in need of what Earp and Savulescu delicately call “biomedical enhancement.”

The authors, however, argue that it’s time to change our attitudes and explore the possibilities offered by breakthroughs in biomedicine and neuroscience.

“If it becomes possible to safely target the underlying neurochemistry that supports romantic attachment, using drugs or other brain-level technologies,” they write, “then there is reason to think this could help some people who really need it.”

They go further and suggest that such drugs have already been partially tested, have been used by huge numbers of people around the world, and should urgently become the subject of controlled research. The problem is the drugs they’re talking about are illegal psychoactive substances such as psilocybin and, in particular, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), the active ingredient in the rave drug ecstasy.


They cite studies that show positive results for the use of MDMA in counselling those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and speculate that similar outcomes might be expected for couples whose relationships have hit the rocks.

But isn’t that a bit of an inductive stretch? What does the effect of, say, fighting in Iraq have to do with failing romances?

Earp says that there is already a small study showing how couples in which one partner has PTSD have benefited from the regulated use of MDMA. The way the drug is thought to work on PTSD sufferers, he says, is by breaking down the defence mechanisms that prevent their being able to open up.

“Our point is that trauma falls on a spectrum and relationships themselves can be traumatic,” he says. “What causes a lot of relationships to break down over time is traumatic or semi-traumatic events that take place either inside or outside the relationship. People start to close down and stop sharing with their partners. Insofar as love requires a certain kind of intimacy, the defense mechanism and the kneejerk fear responses that we build up around talking about certain issues with our partners are the very things that this drug directly enables us to overcome.”

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