Why research love?
I am passionate about my work exploring the science behind human social relationships. I have the privilege of talking to people about the relationships which sit at the very centre of their lives, even sharing their experience as they find first love or become parents for the first time. I also enjoy talking to the public about my work as I strongly believe that academics should share their knowledge with those for whom it will have a real impact. And ultimately, I and my colleagues work to understand human love so that we can develop interventions to help those who may struggle to form and maintain the relationships which provide the foundation for a happy and healthy life. But our work also produces other outcomes, which are catnip for the love entrepreneur. The possibility of commercialising love.
The biology of love
Love has been big business since the Victorian era. While the Tinders and Match.coms of today appear vastly removed from the marriage advertisements which filled the newspaper columns 150 years ago their basis is the same; a forum to advertise both what is on offer and what is desired. But the work carried out by my academic colleagues and I is different because it goes beyond behaviour to the biological essence of love. The ‘love’ neurochemicals and the genes that underpin them. And in this knowledge some believe there is money to be made.
Oxytocin is the neurochemical released when you look across the bar and lock eyes with an attractive stranger, when a parent first holds their new born baby or when a young child first interacts with a new play buddy. It is a crucial component of these first few precious moments as it works to lower your inhibitions to forming new bonds. And oxytocin can be synthesised. Researchers use it with reasonable regularity in their experiments to manipulate a participant’s motivation to be friendly. But its availability is not limited to scientists. You can buy it on the internet. You can even get a next day delivery on eBay. It is advertised as a pheromone (which it is not) which will make the object of your desire fall for you after a mere whiff, a questionable assertion. It is offering the opportunity to increase your chances of someone you find attractive falling for you.
It is not for me to comment on whether or not you should employ oxytocin to up your dating success, that is a decision for you. But I will say this. The neurochemicals in your brain are finely balanced and while we have so much more knowledge today about what happens in this organ when you fall in love there is still so much to know. And there are reports that while oxytocin works for some people in increasing their confidence in social situations – rather than manipulating the behaviour of someone else as is claimed by the manufacturers – for others it has the opposite impact; increasing their aggression and emphasising any in-group/out-group difference.
And we should be asking questions about the ethics of employing these artificial means of prompting love. We need to explore whether it is acceptable to use a substance which alters your brain chemistry. Does this mean the self is altered meaning that the intended mate doesn’t truly know who you are? Or is synthetic oxytocin just another instance of enhancing ones features in much the same way as we use makeup or filter our photos? If we use oxytocin in the arena of romantic love is it then acceptable to administer it to a child who struggles to form bonds, with their parent or peers? If so, does this mean a lifetime of use or is it a stop gap while we try to intervene behaviourally?
It may be okay to test one’s own genes but what about surreptitiously testing one’s partner’s to try to understand their behavioural and psychological inclinations when they are in love? And where does artificial intelligence sit in all of this? If humanoid robots can be made to care to what extent will it be possible for us to form attachments to them and them to us? What happens when a new model comes out, do you scrap the previous one even though it has been programmed to think and feel, maybe even love? Robotics specialists argue this is all possible. The question arises – where do we draw the line in the sand when it comes to the application of scientific knowledge to the commercial world?
Do not confuse these questions for a dislike of this future picture. It is undoubtedly the case that within this new body of knowledge there are aspects which could help all of us to form better relationships and, in turn, experience better physical and mental health. But we need to be informed and we need to debate. Because love sits at the centre of all our lives and its future impacts us all.