As neuroengineering becomes a reality, scientists are grappling with the ethics of changing people's perceptions and feelings — especially when it comes to love. We're on the cusp of "anti-love" drugs, that could help people recover from bad love affairs. What could go wrong? A lot.
Over at New York Magazine, Maia Szalavitz has a thoughtful essay inspired by a new collection of scientific papers in the American Journal of Bioethics that tackle the question of "anti-love biotechnology." She writes that we may be on the cusp of drugs that could change people's brain chemistry enough to help them get away from abusive relationships. In fact, the main therapeutic use for anti-love drugs would be making it easier for people to distance themselves from abusive partners whom they love despite all their problems.
Another possible use for these drugs would be helping people who are needy and clingy with their loved ones. Perhaps by dialing down the intensity of their romantic feelings, these people might be able to feel less jealous or abandoned when their partners are away. Indeed, it seems that Prozac already works this way now — at least for some people. One side-effect of the drug can be divorce, often caused when people taking the anti-depressant say they no longer have any feelings for their husbands or wives.
But the potential for harm is both tremendous and tremendously weird. Anti-love drugs could be used to "cure" homosexuality in cultures where being gay is taboo or illegal. Another concern is that these drugs could be used to wreck the bonds of trust in friendship networks, especially if those networks are subversive in some way.
Imagine families being able to inoculate their teens against crushes to improve academic performance — or spouses forcing the drug on their partners to end affairs, or even governments breaking up social networks of dissidents by chemically alienating them (which would be an interesting counterpoint to the U.S. military's wacky research into a "gay bomb" that would make enemy soldiers irresistible to each other). The dystopian potential seems endless.
For now, however, this possibility is remote. Psychiatrist Larry Young is skeptical that we could ever have a true "anti-love" drug, because love depends as much on memories as it does on chemicals in the brain:
He suspects that drugs could never be specific enough to be useful in dealing with an emotion so intense, so connected to personal memories. "I think a bond of love is a combination of the effects of oxytocin with the cues of the partner and dopamine and maybe [natural brain] opioids — all of these things working together," he says.
"It would be impossible to make a drug that would block a specific bond because there is no single molecule that is involved in love, per se," he says, "I think you have to think of chemistry in combination with connectivity." In other words, love rewires your brain and that rewiring is specific to your own particular love story, so changing the chemistry after the fact can't remove loving memories and the circuits they have woven — that would take an Eternal Sunshine–like memory-erasing process.
Read the whole article over at New York Magazine