Can You Enhance Love?

Divorce rates are on the up. Does love need a helping hand? Should science interfere? We explore this issue with Professor Julian Savulescu.
19 February 2013

Interview with 

Professor Julian Savulescu, Oxford University


Hannah - I wanted to continue to explore the potential of chemicals, such as oxytocin, to stimulate love, pairing it with the question are humans meant for monogamy? And can we promote happy long term relationships using new knowledge from neuroscience?

Love potions have been used throughout history in the hope of bringing on,Couple and maintaining, love. In Swedish folklore, to capture the heart strings of someone you might pop an apple under your armpit carry it about for a day, and then bequest it as a pressie to your intended lover. And even since Roman times various foods have been prescribed to stimulate lust, love and good relationships.

While such examples may have been based on symbolism and wishful thinking, as Alex mentioned, today the biological underpinnings of love are now starting to be elucidated.

At the same time trends in divorce, suggest that love might need a helping hand. Should science interfere? I called up an Oxford don to explore this topic further.

Julian -   My name is Julian Savulescu.  I'm the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. 

I think it's important to understand that human beings are animals and that the most highly coded biological, phenomenon is reproduction.  That's what enables every animal to survive, so it's not surprising that love has a very strong biological determinant influences.  That's not to say it's a purely biological phenomenon, but we shouldn't forget that aspect of our nature that we share in common with other animals, and understand its limitations. 

Human beings are in part monogamous.  They're serially monogamous.  People tended to stay in relationships for between 7 to 10 years where through most of human history, one partner would've died.  In human beings, it's also complicated by the fact that men have a genetic drive to be polygamous outside of their main relationship.  So, it's far easier for them to pass on their genes to the next generation through a number of women where women have a strong drive to have the investment of a single mile.  So, they're competing biological drives.

Hannah -   And say, you're in a monogamous relationship, is there any tricks that we can use from neuroscience in order to kind of stay within that happy bubble of a relationship for the long term?

Julian -   So, all relationships have three phases:  The first phase of lust, the second phase of attraction, fully in love with the particular person for their particular characteristics, and then the much longer phase of attachment where human beings stay together in order to rear their young.  It's the biological function of attachment.  And attachment is what, they say, tends to fade with time and it's sustained by neural hormones such as oxytocin or vasopressin.  So, changes in the level of those neural hormones can affect the degree to which people are attached and stay attached.  So, oxytocin is released through sexual intercourse.  So, regular sexual intercourse would be a relationship bonding event as well as just touching or massage, or indeed some drugs such as some formulations like the old contraceptive pill.  So, in the future, it may be possible to strategically affect these neural hormones that are involved and underpin those different phases of human relationships.

Hannah -   Can we go back to the contraceptive pill and its effect on attachment?  Can you give us some more details on that please?

Julian -   Some versions of the old contraceptive pill are associated with some elevations in oxytocin.  It's not clear whether these have an actual real world of fix, but theoretically, they could and theoretically, you could enhance the oxytocin that they think affects various hormones.

Hannah -   And do you think it is ethical or do you think it would be right to deliver any of these oxytocin releasing chemicals in order to help relationships stay together?  Do you think that's a question that we're going to have to look into in the future?

Julian -   Human beings have inherent biological limitations and in many ways, they weren't designed for the world in which they do live in and the sort of world they want to live in.  And science is showing these ways in which we can overcome those inherent biological obstacles and I believe we should use that knowledge to achieve the worthwhile goals that we have.  Just changing some of the biology by itself won't bring about any good outcome.  You need to couple that with some environmental social intervention.  But to deny people access to these sorts of options is really to kind of make them rather race with one hand tied behind their back.

Hannah -   And what about the fact that there's emerging information, talking about how oxytocin can have some negative impacts as well - possibly, feelings of envy and smugness?

Julian -   Oxytocin can promote in-group solidarity, but make people negative towards out-groups.  So, it has a variety of effects.  So, at the moment, the science of understanding our emotions and our behaviour is still in its infancy, but I think that as we get finely grained understanding of that, we will be able to make better and more specific uses of that information.  So for example, some psychologists have started to use oxytocin, not as a general love drug or relationship promoter, but in order to help couples open up during counselling session and be more willing to engage in the counselling process.  So, I think what you will find is that whatever biological intervention is available will have to be tailored to specific social circumstances and that's going to be a challenge, but that's the case for anything - a blood pressure lowering agent can be good in most people, but bad in some circumstances and bad for some people.

Hannah -   That was Professor Julian Savulescu from Oxford University, exploring modern-day potions for love. 


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