Can You Simulate Love with Drugs?
If love is a chemical reaction in your brain, shouldn't there be a way to artificially induce it?
Photo via the DEA
Love is a lot of things, but when you strip all the poetry and highfalutin ideas away from it, it's just a chemical reaction in your brain and limbic system. So it stands to reason there must be a way to approximate that feeling by putting chemicals in your brain and limbic system, right? And if love is attainable through some combination of drugs, is there any way for an average person—i.e. me—to figure that combination out?
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization that studies the effects of psychedelics on human emotions, balked at my query. "[Drugs] may be able to help reveal what's missing and what's working," the MAP PR rep said in an email, "but they can't do the work for you." But with that caveat, I was put in touch with Dr. Ilsa Jerome, who guided me toward some of the chemical explanations for this handful of feelings.
Jerome gave me an additional warning: "I don't think you can simulate love chemically because social interaction is complex and produces different types of gain, not just feelings," she said.
"Just feelings" would have to do for the moment. But before we began, I needed to define what "love" is. I'm not a poet, but I approached this task with workmanlike efficiency, taking a long list of emotions—lust, infatuation, warmth, etc.—pruned off the terms that didn't apply to romantic love, and lumped the rest into three basic emotional categories:
- Tingly Excitement
- The Need to Cuddle
- Just Really Liking Someone
It wasn't exactly a sonnet, but it would have to do. So how can I achieve these things with a few pills?
The feeling of butterflies in your stomach seems to come from the body's naturally occurring phenylethylamine, an amine that signals the release of the more familiar-sounding hormones dopamine and norepinephrine. This is an old notion, based on the 1983 findings of a psychologist named Michael Liebowitz.
You can buy 200 grams of phenylethylamine for $15.88 plus shipping and handling. The problem is, phenylethylamine doesn't work in pill form: Your body will metabolize it into phenylacetic acid, which is also known as the smell of stinky fungus.
Fortunately, another drug you can get your hands on for pretty cheap, provided you have an ADD diagnosis, also tells your body to produce dopamine and norepinephrine: amphetamine. Amphetamine, a.k.a. Adderall, can be obtained much more easily—and legally—than other nervous-system stimulants with similar mechanism of action like cocaine. Most people who have taken ADD medication know that it produces a feeling of being jazzed about life in general. Sounds like love to me.
The Need to Cuddle
Also in Liebowitz's book was the idea that endorphins play a crucial role in forming bonds between lovers. Endorphins are, as you probably know, the naturally occurring opiates your body pumps out that are probably responsible for the comfort you feel after an orgasm. But don't think you can just pop your nearest opiate—Vicodin, for instance—and feel romantic.
Liebowitz says that your body withholds its natural opiates from you when you're lonely, meaning it's not that the presence of endorphins feels like love—it's just that you feel shitty when they're not there. "Most adults feel some anxiety when separated from important figures in their lives, and some sense of increased security when their closest relationships seem stable," he writes. In this analogy, we're all addicted to opiates, and opiate withdrawal, followed by a relapse, would be a good way to simulate reuniting with a loved one. I can't recommend that.
To simulate being comforted by a loved one, scientists are moderately certain you would need to get your hands on another familiar-sounding hormone called oxytocin, a.k.a. "the cuddle hormone." Like phenylethylamine, oxytocin is widely available, and recent studies show that its nasally administered form really seems to calm people down.
The danger with putting oxytocin in your body like you would a drug, according to Dr. Jerome, is that it's a hormone, and hormones have complicated effects. So while it makes you feel comforted, it also "actually makes people biased toward their own groups," she says. In some cases it can make you hostile to outsiders—in one case study, a person taking oxytocin habitually reported going out and picking fights with people, and then regretting it later. That's no simulation of love.
Just Really Liking Someone
For drug-induced fondness, you probably already guessed that there's nothing quite like good old MDMA. In fact, MAPS has documented that MDMA "mimics the post-orgasmic state," which is probably why it's so popular with the kids these days.
What's more, MDMA appears to simulate bonds of affection by encouraging the production of the hormone prolactin, which apparently helps parents form bonds of affection with their kids. A flood of prolactin is almost certainly a component of the love a mother feels for her child, but it also seems to be a part of the tender emotions you feel when someone is starting to seem like more than just a good lay.
"In a laboratory setting," Dr. Jerome told me, "subjects on MDMA have reported feeling lonely." That may sound like a drag, but it goes hand-in-hand with fondness for loved ones. As anyone who has ever taken MDMA and stayed home will tell you, you feel an overwhelming urge to call and text everyone you care about.
But there are downsides to MDMA as well. It makes for a cheap, and very temporary, love substitute, and it's notorious for making people feel like shit for up to a week after a rave. In fact, some people hate MDMA for that reason. Whether it's a "cup of coffee, or tablet of Prozac, or MDMA," said Dr. Jerome, "they're operating in different brain 'environments.'" Just like movies and music, everyone likes different kinds of drugs—unlike love, which we can all agree feels pretty fucking great.
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