Should you take ecstasy to improve your marriage? Not so fast …

Love drugs and science reporting in the media: Setting the record straight 

By Brian D. Earp, Julian Savulescu, and Anders Sandberg

Love. It makes the world go round. It is the reason we have survived as a species. It is the subject of our art, literature, and music—and it is largely the product of chemical reactions within the brain.

No wonder science is starting to unravel the ways in which we can influence it, and perhaps even control it.

Just as Darwin’s finding that we are descended from apes shocked people in the nineteenth century, so people will be shocked to find that our most lofty social ideal is something we share with our mammalian cousins and which is the subject of scientific scrutiny and even chemistry-book manipulation.

In 2008, two of us (Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg) published an article in the journal Neuroethics on the topic of “love drugs” – a term we use to refer to pharmacological interventions based on existing and future bio-technologies that could work to strengthen the bond between romantic partners. All three of us have an article just published in the journal Philosophy & Technology in which we build upon that earlier work. Interested readers will take the time to study those papers in full, but we have a feeling that much of the population will stop at a handful of media reports that have recently summarized our ideas, including at least one article that we think has the potential to mislead. Let us set the record straight.

Writing in the Huffington Post UK, Kyrsty Hazell suggests that we have uncovered a list of ingredients for a single “love pill” that could include the Class A drug known as ecstasy – or more formally, MDMA. We are not scientists working in this area. We did not claim that a single pill could be derived from the various chemical compounds we discussed in our paper, nor did we suggest that any person should consume any illegal substances, including ecstasy, for any reason. Ecstasy has very complex effects on the brain, not all of which are fully understood, and many of which can be dangerous. Anyone who reads our papers all the way through will see that we in no way advocate the use of prohibited drugs. But we want to take this opportunity to spell it out in so many words. Here is what we wrote about ecstasy in 2008 in Neuroethics:

Entactogen drugs such as 3,4-methylenedioxy-Nmethylamphetamine (MDMA; ‘ecstasy’) promote increasing sociability and an experience of connection with other people, emotional openness and reduction of anxiety. MDMA does not appear to act as an aphrodisiac, but does appear to promote a desire for emotional closeness. This may be due to oxytocin release. There has been therapeutic use of MDMA to develop emotional communications skills, and it is not implausible that it, or similar drugs, could be used to deepen pair bonding.

Why were we writing about MDMA? Here is where the context comes in – and a sense of our broader argument.

We think that modern relationships are as fragile as they are in large part because there is a mismatch between our psycho-sexual natures (designed by evolution to handle the mating arrangements of our ancestors on the African savannah) and our modern relationship values (designed for very different reasons, under completely different conditions). In short, we weren’t built for lifelong monogamy, and it’s no huge surprise that we struggle to pull it off. So what should we do?

There are many possible answers. One route we could take is to re-consider our values – maybe lifelong love and sexual exclusivity are not something we should be striving for in the first place. There are some arguments for this position, and some may find them convincing. But most will not. Recent surveys show that a large majority of unmarried people still wish to meet at the altar with someone they love, and a raft of evidence shows that successful, committed relationships are conducive to well-being, increasing physical and emotional health, and even longevity. Strong marriages are also in the best interests of children, as we take the time to show in our Philosophy & Technology piece. Accordingly, we suggest that it may be time to explore other possibilities: boosting our psycho-biologies to “rise” to the level of our values. We call this the neuroenhancement of human relationships, and it’s where all the talk about “love drugs” comes into play.

Note that the goal here is not to kindle some arbitrary attraction out of thin air like love potions do in fairy tales, but to help existing love survive the test of time. Scientists do not yet understand the attraction system well enough to allow us to conjecture whether love potions of the fairy-tale variety are even possible. And even if they were, they would pose a number of moral problems since they could create inauthentic relationships with no real grounding in the actual compatibilities of the individuals involved. In contrast, our arguments examined the possibility of using love drugs to make authentic relationships last.

Now, what is a love drug? In the first place, it is not some single, cure-all pill. Rather, it is any chemical substance that would work at the level of the brain to improve a love-based relationship. This could include a bottle of wine shared over a romantic dinner (a love drug that’s been used—and mis-used—for thousands of years); a little blue tablet sold by Pfizer that many older couples have found helpful in restoring a healthy sex life; and even anti-depressant drugs in certain cases: depression can drag down a relationship, and many people find that a dose of medication is crucial to helping them function successfully with their partners. Those are all household examples already in use.

Other more unusual candidates include the neuropeptide oxytocin—normally expressed through breast-feeding, sex, touching, and orgasm, but which may now be purchased online in the form of a nasal spray, and which is being used in a ream of new studies on human and animal social interaction. Other hormones like testosterone have a powerful effect on relationship-relevant phenomena like sex drives and tendencies to cheat, and these levels might be adjusted in some couples at a future stage of this sort of research.

And that’s just the point: we were outlining a scientific research program for looking into the sorts of chemical substances which might one day be used to influence love, lust, and attachment in individuals in committed relationships. Ecstasy has been studied in laboratory settings, and some of its effects on the brain suggest that—under the right conditions, and with the proper social, procedural, and legal parameters in place—MDMA-like compounds may eventually be administered in a therapeutic manner.

Scientific studies on the medical use of pharmacological substances is very different from the illicit use of those same substances by private citizens: our paper was about the former, not the latter.

In this vein, we point to recent studies showing that LSD may help treat alcoholism, and that the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” may work on the brain to promote well-being and positive personality changes. The key thing to highlight is that these findings were generated under the highly controlled conditions of a laboratory experiment—carried out by well-qualified researchers whose attention to safety was paramount—and that the use of these substances under other conditions may be very harmful. If ecstasy or ecstasy-like compounds are ever to be administered therapeutically, they would have to be exhaustively vetted by the instruments of clinical testing, and used as a “love drug” only in a future setting in which the relevant legal and practical considerations were in place.

In the meantime, we re-iterate our call for careful research in this area, and double down on the reminder that illegal drug use forms no part of our argument. Far from suggesting that couples descend into an opium den of ecstatic manipulation of their emotions, we argued that people should use the results of modern science to make their lives better, including one of the fundamental determinants of their happiness and health: their marriage.

FURTHER READING:

Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., and Savulescu, J. (2012). Natural selection, childrearing, and the ethics of marriage (and divorce): Building a case for the neuroenhancement of human relationships. Philosophy & Technology, DOI: 10.1007/s13347-012-0081-8.

Savulescu, J., and Sandberg, A. (2008). Neuroenhancement of love and marriage: The chemicals between us. Neuroethics1, 31-44.

Also look out for the forthcoming full-length book on this topic by Julian Savulescu and Brian D. Earp. Manuscript to be completed this year.

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Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Follow Julian on Twitter by clicking here.

Follow Anders on Twitter by clicking here.

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9 Responses to Should you take ecstasy to improve your marriage? Not so fast …

  • Khalid Jan says:

    1. “We call this the neuroenhancement of human relationships, and it’s where all the talk about “love drugs” comes into play.” It appears that we are replacing determinism with coercion. Oxytocin, in addition to producing forced emotional feelings, can also produce “envy and gloating” (The dark side of oxytocin, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110801160306.htm)

    2. “but to help existing love survive the test of time.” Why force ‘miserable’ people to fake their ‘miserable’ relationships just so that a drug or a theory can be proven effective?

    3. “In contrast, our arguments examined the possibility using love drugs to make authentic relationships last.” What about the divorce lawyers, psychotherapists, councillors and other such professionals who provide services to those having a ‘non-authetic’ relationships? Will their services be totally eliminated? If not, why?

    4. “we argued that people should use the results of modern science to make their lives better, including one of the fundamental determinants of their happiness and health: their marriage.” The way the terms ‘happiness and health’ are used, it somehow presupposes that everyone, including the scientists, the psychologists and the philosophers, are fully cognizant of these terms. Someone needs to define both terms clearly before the adherents of these terms embark on further chemicalizing the brains of unaware people.

    • Mathew Varidel says:

      1 and 2: While I don’t know the views of the other philosophers, Savulescu’s arguments in the past have opposed coercion by outside entities. I don’t see where coercion is implied in this article either.

      3: Surely the well-being of the couple is more important than the employment of other services. After all, the purpose of those services is that they promote the well-being of the people involved.

      4. Firstly, I’m still not sure where you get this idea that they want to force such drugs on “unaware” people. Secondly, the terms “happiness” and “health” are not so ambiguous that we don’t know what they’re talking about. Further definitions can help to clarify the issue but that does not mean that their use is meaningless.

      • Khalid Jan says:

        1&2: I will let my own ignorance assume that the original-founding fathers of neuroscience probably also opposed the use of neuroscience for coercive purposes. But today, neuromarketing is widely utilized by many companies to coerce people into buying things, including drugs. Imagine that there comes a time when family structure is deteriorated to such a degree that children can no longer be raised by their parents, let’s say, due to the ‘non-authentic’ relationships; in this case, can the state coerce such parents into taking the ‘love drug?’ – the state needs able citizens for the purpose of population and economic growth. Also, some people in certain communities in the UK, do force their daughters to marry men in certain South Asian countries: should the British society, to save these type of marriages, ‘encourage’ the man or the woman to take the ‘love drug?’

        3: What if a segment of other service providers fall into depression or commit suicide due to the ‘love drug’ taking over their services?

        4: Within the context of the topic, don’t the drug companies use neuromarketing and other deceptive methods to promote drugs? In certain countries in the West, the divorce rate is almost above 50%. In such case, can the drug companies use neuroscience to market their drugs? If so, what would this method be called?

        Contentment, can it bond difficult relationships? Short term ‘happiness’ can be attained by artificial means, let’s say by using Benzodiazepines, but not contentment. This is probably the reason no drugs so far have been ‘approved’ for achieving contentment. If produced, it will overnight bankrupt the pharma industry and its propaganda wing(s). ‘Happiness’ – in the context of our topic – in our times, is a televised pharmaceutical culture (of course there are other televised cultures too), which constantly projects images of beautiful, young and smiling people who are on drugs for depression, ADHD, anxiety with side effects ranging from death, stroke, heart attacks, suicidal thoughts and so on. Is this what we call ‘happiness and health’ or is it simply a ‘disease maintenance’ strategy to sell drugs? My objection to the usage of the terms ‘happiness and health’ along with mentioning drugs by professional ethicists is basically due to the fact they indirectly promote the pharmaceutical drugs that are persistently marketed using coercive marketing techniques. If we were to ask Socrates’ for his views on the use of ‘love drug’ for ‘non-authentic’ relationships, I am quite sure his answer would be ‘remove their ignorance.’ Probably, removal of ignorance and teaching them the art of attaining contentment would benefit them more than the chemicals playing havoc with their fragile neurotransmitters. Professional ethicists, therefore, should refrain from inventing or selling diseases or conditions or promoting powerful drugs that could cause more harm than good.

        OxyContin marketing blamed for addiction epidemic
        http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/03/08/oxycontin-marketing.html

        The Potentially Coercive Nature of Some Clinical Research Trial Acronyms
        James P. Orlowski, MD, FCCP and James A. Christensen, AB
        http://chestjournal.chestpubs.org/content/121/6/2023.full

        More enforcement and bigger fines may change illegal drug marketing, say Harvard researchers
        http://www.nj.com/business/index.ssf/2011/12/more_enforcement_and_bigger_fi.html

        Patients should know if their doctors get paid by drug firms
        http://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-09-patients-doctors-paid-drug-firms.html

        Big Pharma says your mysterious pain is real
        http://www.salon.com/2009/06/11/fibromyalgia/

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      No, we have not advocated coercion anywhere. In fact, we discuss some of the problems with pair-wise treatment since it might imply some inter-relation coercion.

      Just like MDMA is unlikely to be *the* solution, so is oxytocin unlikely to be the solution. Besides envy and gloating it might make prejudice against outgroup members stronger. Rather, the current results point towards the oxytocin *system* as a good starting point for researching love drugs.

      Some relationships are miserable or wrong in different ways, and hence should end. But that doesn’t mean one should not try to help the worthwhile relationships when biology is throwing a spanner in the works. Knowing whether to fix something and being able to fix it are two different things: without the later capacity the first is pointless, and it is stupid to try to use the later without having the first. But this is not different from the challenge of normal marriage counselling.

      • Khalid Jan says:

        Anders, thank you for your enlightened comments. Please see my reply to Mathew above. If needed, I will add some further thoughts to your reply.

      • Khalid Jan says:

        “But that doesn’t mean one should not try to help the worthwhile relationships when biology is throwing a spanner in the works.”
         
        If I am not mistaken, I believe there appears to be a problem with this thesis. Let’s assume that a man and a woman are in an “authentic” relationship, and are living together, say for the past three years. As their relationship enters into the first quarter of the fourth year, it somehow begins to steer toward the “inauthentic” extreme. If we say that it is their biology that is causing the “inauthenticity,” then why didn’t it occur in the first or the second year? Were the biological traits simply dormant for three years and suddenly, into the fourth year, got activated? Or is there another explanation for this particular shift?
         
        In my understanding, the core essence of the article is to save, if possible, the “authentic” relationships that are worth saving by way of the pharmaceutical drugs. If I got it wrong, please correct me. Anyone in a position to influence, when they talk about drug therapy, they are promoting drug-manufacturing companies that use deceptive and coercive methods in promoting their products. Does it make any difference if coercion is not specifically mentioned? The thing or the entity mentioned; its existence could very well be founded upon deception and coercion.  
         
        I suggest that those who are inclined towards using drugs – of course in certain circumstances, should find troubled relationships within their immediate family, relatives and friends, conduct the clinical trail on them first, and then submit the finding to an appropriate body for review.

        • Anders Sandberg says:

          It all depends on the notion of authenticity, doesn’t it? As I use the term I mean relationships where the initial attraction was entirely due to the attraction systems of the couple: they fell for each other and meshed because of who they were. A love potion that makes you fall in love with the first person you see doesn’t produce an authentic relationship since it is not based on who you or the other person are. Typically couples retain this authenticity over their relation: they learn more about each other and respond according to their personal natures.

          The kind of drifting apart we are focusing on is not due to changes on this level – people who come to the realisation that they cannot stand each other due to annoying or bad habits, different outlooks etc. are drifting apart authentically too. We are interested in the case where the underlying biochemical machinery is causing the drift: the flame is gone, not because of anything either person has done or not done, but because low-level systems maintaining the bonding are following crappy biological programs. That is where we think biochemical adjustments could be good and indeed support authenticity. We also suspect that this kind of problem is more common than most people think: as many psychological experiments show, we tend to rationalise our emotions with various plausible causes even when they are actually due to some biological cause.

          I wonder how strongly people would react to this proposal if we had been talking about some herbal remedy. A lot of the reactions seem coloured by a fear and dislike of pharmaceutical pills, rather than the direct biochemical aspect. But from an ethical standpoint there is no difference between eating an imaginary oxytocin-modulating plant or taking an oxytocin-modulating pill: both have the same end effect. There are of course practical issues such as reliability (pills tend to have quality control, plants do not), concerns about medicalisation, overselling and whether different means integrate culturally. But they are separate from the core issue we wanted to investigate, whether there is a good ethical case for biochemical modification of the pair bonding system.

  • Khalid Jan says:

    Anders, thanks again for your thoughts.

    What is emotion, and what is love: Antonio Damasio will give one answer, and the late professor Robert Solomon, another. Why people fall in love and why they split, no one will ever be able to give us a definite answer. But scientific advancement in medicine is telling us that there is a drug that can save “authentic,” but troubled relationships; can the science also tell us why some women are attracted to criminals, gangsters, murderers…? (Why are women drawn to men behind bars?, Guardian, January 13, 2003). If our scientific principles are consistent, then it seems like these particular relationships need some type of “reverse love drug.” Scientifically speaking, there must exist some form of biochemical imbalance that compels these women to form a relationship with such men: it just simply doesn’t make any sense or does it? In both cases, can it be that the biochemical imbalance actually is a survival mechanism of some sort?

    I am still looking for an answer as to why one biology, which is at odds with another biology, fails to trigger symptoms at an early stage of a relationship, but exhibits its negative side at a later stage in the relationship. Why some couples, after living together for years, get married and file for divorce? Why the biology does not cause the split before the marriage? Isn’t it possible that some facts or knowledge – deliberately or due to ignorance – are absent from the entire thesis? The UCLA psychologists appear to have a reasonable approach to saving relationships – of course drug free: (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120201181453.htm).

    Let’s assume that the biology appears to be the main cause of permanent split for both partners; both find other partners and continue to have a fruitful relationships: where does the biology fit in this case? If the biochemical composition was defective in both persons in the first place, it should be defective in all subsequent relationships. But it isn’t! Why this inconsistency? The film, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” shows multiple relationships and how they shift from one dimension to another.

    “There are of course practical issues such as reliability (pills tend to have quality control, plants do not)…” What about the drug trials by some of the big pharmaceutical companies in India where majority of the trials neither have morals nor ethics? What kind of quality control are we talking about when the subjects don’t even know what they are consenting to? (India’s drug trials fuel consent controversy, Washington Post, Jan 1, 2012); (Pushing Western medicine with fear in India, Reuters, July 7, 2011); (Ethics for Sale, Slate.com, Dec 13, 2005); “Big Pharma has been the biggest spender on Washington lobbying of any industry, laying out $2.1 billion over the last dozen years to get its way, according to congressional figures.” (LA Times, April 03, 2011).

    Just because a particular drug is on the market, we don’t have to invent diseases or conditions so the drug can be marketed. Yes, saving people’s lives and striving for their well-being is indeed a noble cause, but it should never be at the expense of the corporate greed, deception and coercion. Socrates accepted death, but he refused to submit to the Athenian system of lies and deception.

  • Michael says:

    Sorry to come to this post so late, but I’ve fallen behind on Google Reader! A couple thoughts:

    1. “…they [love drugs] would pose a number of moral problems since they could create inauthentic relationships with no real grounding in the actual compatibilities of the individuals involved. In contrast, our arguments examined the possibility using love drugs to make authentic relationships last.”

    Could we reasonably expect couples or those prescribing future love drugs to make reliable distinctions between inauthentic and authentic relationships? (Is this even a reasonable theoretical distinction? Who is to say what coupling may ultimately prove successful?) I’m all for going ahead with this research to address your stated aims, but it seems to me the widespread use of love drugs by “authentic” couples would inevitably result in widespread misuse by “inauthentic” couples. We may simply have to accept the downsides like we have with wine, as you note, and be open about them from the outset.

    2. I think you are correct to note the “mismatch between our psycho-sexual natures…and our modern relationship values,” but I think you err slightly in your evaluation of how we should address it. The surveys you cite to argue that many people would be unwilling to “re-consider our values” seem only to address the “lifelong love” value, not the “sexual exclusivity” value. In my mind, there is no good reason unmarried people who are in love should not get married and then prioritize sexual exclusivity beneath an honest discussion of sexual non-exclusivity if one or both partners find their “psycho-sexual nature” outpacing their “modern relationship values”. That is to say, there is no absolute requirement that sexual exclusivity be at the center of the “wish to meet at the altar with someone they love”. Rather, it is our culture that demands the union of these two values, and it is culture that I think is ultimately responsible for producing so many unhappy relationships and marriages. I only bring this up because I wonder how useful love drugs would be in this matter if culture could progress faster than science.

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