Should you take ecstasy to improve your marriage? Not so fast …
Love drugs and science reporting in the media: Setting the record straight
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.
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.
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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