Love is a drug

Believe it or not issue 32 of What’s Next is almost done. Here’s a sneak peak…

In the midst of frantic emails and rushed meetings it’s easy to forget that we are animals at heart. Moreover, we are animals that have hardly changed over thousands of years. Yet we find ourselves in a world of our making that is far removed from that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In other words, the world around us has changed profoundly, but we are still largely stuck with the psychological habits and hubris of cave men and women. A case in point is mating and more specifically marriage.

Thanks to modern medical marvels we have managed to more than double the human lifespan. Historically, keeping alive was job number one for most people and we only reached an age of 35 on average. Relationships and pair bonding were therefore an urgent biological imperative, which usually ended with one or other partner dying. Given a lifespan of 35, around 50% of relationships would have come to an end within 15-years due to death.

This is interesting, because in modern society most marriages last for a similar amount of time – 11 years to be precise. So perhaps we were not designed to survive long-lasting relationships. Nevertheless, making marriages last longer would seem like a good idea, not least because longer-lasting relationships tend to create greater physical and mental well-being. They also cost society and the taxpayer considerably less in terms of everything from healthcare to housing.

So what’s to be done? One answer might stem from neurobiology. For instance, a study looking at the mating habits of monogamous prairie voles (Microtus orchrogaster) versus polygamous voles (Microtus montanus) found that the receptors for certain hormones are distributed differently between the two types of vole. In one experiment, putting a receptor gene from a faithful vole into the brain of a promiscuous relative resulted in a marked change of behaviour. The adulterous wandering vole became faithful and monogamous.

So clearly the question is whether or not a chemical fix might stop human marriages from falling apart, or at least make them last longer. What if, for example, you could buy a nasal spray over the counter, which encouraged trusting behaviour or could make couples talk to each other more? What if it were possible to extend the romantic phase of a relationship by popping a pill or to stop someone from straying elsewhere with an injection or a patch? It sounds fanciful, but it’s not. We already modify the behaviour of sexual offenders chemically, so why can’t we use an improved knowledge of the chemical composition of love and romance to bring people closer together for longer?

Trust me, this will one day be possible, although whether societies will allow it is another kettle of piranhas. For example, would neuro-enhancement or chemical modification make a relationship inauthentic? Could people become addicted to love and could chemically augmented relationships imprison individuals, even children, in bad relationships? Some people might argue that drink and drugs do this already, but in theory better ‘love drugs’ could release us from the shackles of our biological past and make us all more loving, trusting and happy.

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