When ice cream and rebound sex just don’t cut it at helping you get over what's-his-face, a new field of anti-love pharmaceuticals might help you fall out of love faster than you fell into it.
There are certain things in life that suck more than getting stabbed by trash-injected hypodermic needles at your birthday party, and one of those things is love. No matter how you look at it, and how many virtues it purports to have, love will mangle you and it will hurt. All we want when love leaves us heartbroken is for the feeling to go away.
But although it may seem guided by some divine intervention hellbent on making you cry and cruise for rebound sex, love is nothing more than brain chemistry, pure and simple. At its most rudimentary form, love is just a chain of biochemical processes moderated by a cocktail of ancient hormones and neurotransmitters that dupe you into thinking you’re the Romeo and Juliet of the modern age.
When you view it through that lens, doesn’t love seem susceptible to being annihilated by medical intervention? If love is just a concoction of cerebral chemicals, it makes sense that doctors could offer up a convenient pill designed to intervene in the process of love.
And although as we speak there are no ex-shaped pills you can pop to circumcise your boner for true love, drugs designed to manipulate brain systems that enhance or diminish our romantic adoration for other humanoids may not be far away. As it turns out, “anti-love” biotechnology may be shifting from the world of medieval alchemy and Harry Potter–esque fantasy tales to genuine medical science, and it could be coming to a disheveled medicine cabinet near you.
In fact, elementary forms of anti-love drugs are already being used to nix unwanted feelings of affection. According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, psychiatric drugs are “being given to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students at the request of rabbis and marriage counselors as a way of suppressing sexual feelings, so that the they may ﬁnd it easier to comply with rigid Orthodox norms about love and human sexuality.”
American sex offenders even sometimes receive chemical castration as a condition for parole, which involves the oral ingestion of anti-androgen drugs intended to reduce their sex drives to that of a really apathetic tree.
So, the first glimpses of anti-love drugs are out there. Howeer, ccurrent drugs are only capable of K.O.-ing people’s sex drives. They’re useless at modifying an individual’s “higher-order” feelings of love and attachment, specifically the ones that get bungled during real heartbreak. Thank the gods a few emerging biotechnologies may soon make it possible to intervene.
There are two ways scientists are looking into doing this: hormonal intervention and meddling with the brain’s addiction pathways.
The former option is based around the idea that love is mediated by hormones, the most famous of those being oxytocin. To give you an idea of what oxytocin does, consider an experiment conducted by Adam Guastella, a clinical psychologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. He administered the hormone to quarreling lovers during couples’ therapy and found that it helped reduce hostility and increased willingness to take another’s perspective. Under the guise of oxytocin, couples felt more in love.
By that logic, inhibiting oxytocin could have an anti-love effect. It does in prairie voles.
When Emory University researchers injected drugs into the brains of prairie voles to block oxytocin receptors, the typically monogamous voles lost interest in their long-term mating partners. The voles would mate with anyone who asked, it would feel great for everyone, and then they’d instantly lose interest. And is that not exactly what you want when you’re heartbroken? Unbridled banging without the burden of emotion? It absolutely is. With the manipulation of oxytocin in this sense, a love “off button” seems possible.
Another hormonal intervention aimed at decimating love focuses on the hormone dopamine. In the same vole study as above, pair-bonded male prairie voles were injected with a dopamine-17 blocker at a specific site in the brain. Afterwards, they failed to show characteristic mate-guarding behaviors and became more receptive to interactions with novel females. Thus, dopamine reveals itself as another avenue in the chemical intervention of love.
Dopamine is an interesting place to intervene in love for another reason as well: it’s the main hormone involved in the brain’s reward pathway, which can malfunction and progress to addiction.
In fact, a vast body of research on the anatomical, neurochemical, phenomenological, and behavioral parallels between love and addiction seems to suggest that interfering with the brain’s addiction pathways may help dampen feelings of love and arousal.
The easiest way to mess with dopamine is to take SSRIs, which are common antidepressants. Helen Fischer, a world renowned anthropologist and love researcher, had this to say about that: “My feeling is that when you take SSRIs, you might be jeopardizing your ability to fall in love or stay in love or both. When you drive up the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, you are highly likely to suppress the dopamine system, and my colleagues and I have clearly found that elevated activity in the dopamine system is linked to one’s romantic feeling.”
“I’ve gotten a good deal of mail from people who’ve said they were in a nice short or long romance or marriage with someone that was going perfectly well, and this person started taking SSRIs, and it not only killed their sex drive, but it also killed their feelings of intense romantic love for their partners,” she continued. That’s a pretty desirable result if you’re currently in the throes of heartache.
However, it’s not as cut-and-dry as that, or we’d all be popping Zoloft every time our Tinder date served us with a restraining order. “You’d really want to follow a great many people throughout an extended period and measure hormone and neurotransmitter activity both before and after they start taking these drugs, and there’s no technology that can really monitor the brain’s neurotransmitter activity in real-time like that,” Fisher says. God damn technology. Well, that’s why antidepressants are not currently the same thing as anti-love drugs.
Good thing there’s naltrexone.
Naltrexone is another way to interfere with dopamine’s love-inducing effects; it’s what’s called a dopamine antagonist, and used to treat a variety of addictions, including that to love. A study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that a devout Christian man suffering from porn addiction was treated using oral naltrexone.
Naltrexone is also used to treat heroin and alcohol addiction, two phenomena which involve the brain’s dopamine-reward system, just like love. Theoretically, if love is an addiction, drugs like naltrexone should help diminish the pain. However, because naltrexone is not love-specific, no current clinical trials are investigating it’s potential to help you move on from sexy Wanda.
See, that’s the major problem with anti-love biotechnology in its current state: it’s not specific.
Current hormone and addiction-blocking drugs can’t pinpoint the person you’re in love with and delete your emotional memory of them. The best they can do is interfere with brain chemistry, but there’s no telling how that’ll influence other systems that have nothing to do with love.
For example, if you take SSRIs to dampen the effect of dopamine, you could suffer problems with memory, attention, hunger and physical movement. Yeah, maybe you’ll have forgotten about your breakup, but you might also have forgotten your name what the capital of Colorado is. Oh, and you just pissed yourself. And while SSRIs get prescribed to thousands of Americans every day, they’ve been formulated specifically to treat the broad symptoms depression, not romantic heartache. And they’re not without side effects; erectile dysfunction, difficulty orgasming, and thoughts of suicide are just some of them. None of these are things you want to deal with when you’re trying to erase your memory of what’s-his-face.
But even if medical science advanced to a point where the drugs were selective, the ethical research barriers to making them safely are enormous. To test the efficacy of any drug, you would also have to ask normal, healthy, not-heartbroken people in good relationships to take the drug, something most people wouldn’t volunteer for. Therein lies a question of both statistical and ethical significance: would the sample sizes used to test the drugs be too small to apply the results to a general population? Would it be ethical to ruin perfectly healthy relationships in the name of science, assuming the anti-love drugs actually worked? Let’s all say it together … “Nope.”
Love killing drugs have a long ways to go. Until targeted therapy becomes available, anti-love drugs would not only dampen affection but also snuff out positive feelings for friends and family. So, to fully obliterate heartache, scientists may first have to discern how to relieve us of our capacity to love. And much like getting a root canal and swimming with piranhas at the same time, that’s something no one’s interested in doing.