The Science of Sex is a new column from Broadly exploring the tech behind the complicated and fantastic ways we get off—b ecause sex is sexy, but science is sexier. This week, sex writer S. Nicole Lane plunges deep into the electrifying world of electro-play sex toys.
The night I met my ex-boyfriend, I was high on MDMA. So was he. I mean, this was London in 2013—everyone was high on MDMA!
I looked at him erotically on a dancefloor; he invited me back to his for a non-existent house party; we drank warm champagne and listened to a six-hour techno playlist of his own creation.
As love stories go, it was an extremely auspicious start.
Fast forward a few years and I'm standing outside a London pub crying while my now ex-boyfriend offers me cocaine. (I declined.) See ya Steve, that techno playlist was real!
Here's a question: What does the beginning and end of our story have in common? Fun recreational drugs, obviously! People have been using illegal drugs to enhance romantic love or blunt emotional trauma since as far back as Wikipedia tells me.
But what if there was a scientifically precise way of doing this? What if we could manufacture a love potion in a laboratory that would enhance the feeling of falling in love—or more importantly, stop you falling out of love with your partner? Would you take it?
Dr. Anders Sandberg of the University of Oxford believes that, one day, we'll be able to achieve just this. What separates him from a particularly ambitious or successful witch? Well, the fact he's a trained computational neuroscientist, mostly.
"From a purely hedonistic view, people have been taking drugs to have more fun in the bedroom since forever," says Dr. Sandberg in Nordic-accented tones. "There are endless crazy aphrodisiacs in folklore and medicine!" But enhancing sexual function and desire is in no way the same as enhancing love, as anyone who's had sex with someone they despise will know well.
Understanding the neurological processes behind adult romantic love can help us envisage how one day we may be to hack this process using our neurochemistry. But why do we fall in love at all? According to Sandberg, it's because human babies are essentially useless at anything except providing fun social media content.
"We humans have really hopeless babies," Sandberg says, "unlike baby horses, who can walk a few hours after getting born. So from an evolutionary point of view, we need to make sure parents stay together to give their offspring the best chance of survival. That's where pair-bonding systems come into play."
Falling in love has a very specific effect on your brain chemistry, he explains. The main chemicals involves are oxytocin and vasopressin; studies using prairie voles have shown that the brain releases these molecules during pair bonding by activating its dopamine system.
"The thing that really creates a bond together is the dopamine system," Sandberg says. "Many of the symptoms are similar to taking a stimulant effect. You have a dopamine release in your frontal lobe, and this causes you to recognize that this is someone who you should be around, who you should feel close to."
Meanwhile, vasopressin is believed to be more important in the male pair bonding system. "In some animals, when they become fathers you see an increase in the number of vasopressin receptors in the forebrain, which may reduce the likelihood of philandering."
Ever been apart from a lover and urgently missed the way they smell or taste? That's because your body releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CPH) in their absence. It's the reason you feel lonely and blue: It's literally programmed into our biology.
A modern day love potion, Sandberg says, would include some combination of all three of these chemicals. But it's not as simple as just adding a hormone into the brain by taking an oxytocin nasal spray (which already exist). "A good love drug would need to affect the right part of the brain by stimulating these systems," he explains, but he's imprecise on the nuts and bolts of how this would actually work: "We don't have any proper love drugs yet."
That said, science is evolving fast. "We're already much better at understanding brains and how to model brain circuitry than we used to be," he says, "and within ten years I would be very surprised if we didn't know how to modulate this problem." Meaning that we could have lab-produced love potions on pharmacy shelves within a generation—Sandberg's rough guess is that it'll happen within 20 years.
Now I'm done explaining the science part, I need to say something: I hate this! This sucks. I do not want to take a drug to make me fall in love with someone, or worse still, have someone take a drug to fall in love with me. Love isn't love unless it's authentically given and received. People describe love as this wonderful beautiful crazy thing that adds to the mystery of being alive, but in my opinion it's really just wanting to bury your face in someone's sweaty armpit because it smells so fucking good. If you don't want to do that, no love potion is going to fix things!
I tell Sandberg this repeatedly during our hour-long phone call, but like a benign uncle, he repudiates all my criticisms with rational facts and the occasional reference to classical myth.
"The classic love potion, which makes you fall in love with someone just because you drank the potion, is certainly problematic," Sandberg says. "From an ethics point of view, if love potions like this existed, they'd really be quite horrifying date rape drugs, in essence." But he argues that love potions—if used moderately—can have a strengthening effect on already existing relationships.
"When you're already in love with someone, emotions can change over time. What if there was a way of topping up that love that might be starting to fade?" he asks. Maybe you recently bought a house together, or you have kids. Sandberg envisions a world where love potions are treated, alongside relationship counseling, as a way to strengthen failing relationships before they reach the point of no return.
"I don't think you can keep a relationship together through medication," he says, "but if you took drugs to put you in the right empathetic mode, and then combined that with proper couples therapy, that could work well."
Sure, I say, I can see the logic. But marriage counseling is a talking therapy used to help you work through persistent issues and empathize better with your partner. It's not literally medicating yourself into a state of romantic love, I venture to Dr. Sandberg. He does one of those kindly Morgan FreemanTM laughs, then implies I'm a hopeless romantic.
"What you're really talking about is the idea that there's one true love out there," he says, "and that when you see them the music will play and the birds will sing and everything will change. But it's kind of a myth."
But isn't there something inherently creepy about medicalizing love? After all, the pharmaceutical industry poisons every well they touch as surely as a finger bowl used by Trump will turn orange. "That depends on how anti-capitalist you are," Sandberg concedes. "There's certainly something in the Marxist critique that we shouldn't treat each other as commodities. We'd need a frank discussion of what we want the medical profession to do with us and in our private lives."
He believes that society could be a better place if only we all had access to love potions—and not just for romantic reasons. "Drugs could help mothers and father bond with children, and to strengthen and improve families."
According to Sandberg, we'll appreciate love more by understanding it. I can kind of see his logic—I appreciate a great breast augmentation far more than I appreciate great breasts—but the great doctor is missing a fundamental point: Love is pain! No one in love is truly happy, they're just terrified the love bubble is going to burst and they're going to be alone again, masturbating to fill the emptiness during those ten second Netflix episode breaks. He's missing the entire point! More love will only spread more misery!
"A lot of people say that unpacking the science of love is like unweaving the rainbow," the well-read Dr. Sandberg goes on, making reference to the poet William Blake's criticism of Isaac Newton for trying to explain concepts like gravity. "There's the idea that rainbows are just reflections and water drops, and if you understand how they work on a scientific level, they lose their meaning." But, he goes on, "I think you can understand something like love in a scientific way without losing its beauty. It's just a deeper understanding there."
Luckily for me, all of this is still a long way off. "We don't have any proper love drugs yet," Dr. Sandberg acknowledges. Until then? If you're feeling kind of ambivalent about your partner, you might want to try MDMA. You can have that tip for free.
Dr. Sandberg will be appearing at The Greatest Adventure: Love in the Time of Tinder festival in Hay-on-Wye on 29-30 April. Buy tickets here.