Breaking up is hard to do. If drugs could ease the pain, when should we use them, asks neuro-ethicist Brian D. Earp
For your research, how do you define love?
We tend to think of love as a phenomenon grounded in ancient neurochemical systems that evolved for our ancestors’ reproductive needs. There is more to our experience of love than brain chemistry, of course, but those brain-level phenomena play a central role.
The idea of love as a drug is a cliché, but does it have any characteristics of addiction?
Recent brain studies show extensive parallels between the effects of certain addictive drugs and experiences of being in love. Both activate the brain’s reward system, can overwhelm us so that we forget about other things and can inspire withdrawal when they are no longer available. It seems it isn’t just a cliché that love is like a drug: in terms of effects on the brain, they may be neurochemically equivalent.
You have written about the possibility of using “anti-love biotechnology” as a treatment. When would it be warranted?
The idea of treating someone for an addiction to a bad relationship is something to be very cautious about. So we end up stacking the cards in favour of autonomy – the voluntary use of any “anti-love” intervention.
You can imagine a situation in which a person’s experience of love is so profoundly harmful, yet so irresistible, that it undermines their ability to think rationally for themselves. In a case of domestic abuse, that can be life-threatening. But even then, we wouldn’t recommend forcing drug-based treatment on someone against their will: non-biochemical interventions should be tried first.
So when would this type of treatment be ideal?
Some people in dangerous relationships know they need to get out, and even want to, but are unable to break their emotional attachment. If, for example, a woman in an abusive relationship could access medication that would help her break ties with her abuser, then, assuming it was safe and effective, we think she could be justified in taking it.