Ready or not, soon we’ll be able to artificially induce affection or desire.
Contrary to what all those poets, romance authors, songwriters, or Valentine’s Day cards have told us, scientists are well on their way to unraveling the biological processes behind why we like—as in really like—someone.
Research is already spearheading the development of new medications that will eventually allow us to fall in love, lust, or perhaps turn these and other emotions on or off whenever we want.
Or, if we’re not careful, create a world where this sort of profound control over how we feel isn’t in our hands but someone else’s.
The neurochemical tango
Unraveled biological processes we currently believe involve oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and beta-endorphin.
Oxytocin takes the lead: a hormone that helps mothers during childbirth by, among other things, contracting uterine walls. Its production also affects how empathetic we are, lowers inhibitions, and spikes whenever we feel love or desire—as noted by this paper published in the scientific journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Right behind it is dopamine, its neurochemical steps boosting satisfaction, motivation, as well as desire and affection.
Functioning as a governor, keeping everything from getting too wild and crazy, as well as another sexual and emotional enhancement, serotonin comes next.
Rounding it all up is beta-endorphin, playing its part by reducing stress, giving us that “walking on sunshine” romantic euphoria, and bringing other sexually stimulating endorphins to the dance.
This is, of course, ridiculously simplified and doesn’t take into account factors like the genetic roots of sexual orientation—or perhaps other important drivers behind our attractions to who and why, as well.
While love drugs aren’t here yet, researchers do know enough to set us on the path towards a time when we—or someone—can change our minds.
Love me do
It’s tough enough to ponder the impact technologies like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, sexbots, and everything else we write about here at Future of Sex could affect human sexuality.
But when it involves altering our neurochemistry, the most optimistic futurist frequently runs screaming for the hills.
For lots of extremely good reasons, made ten times worse by how insanely easy they’d be to implement. Never mind how a fascist state might use it to force everyone to love “Dear Leader,” it’d take only a single, mess-up individual to do everything from emotionally and sexually controlling whoever they want to cultishly chemically enslaving hundreds or thousands of innocent people.
Can’t help falling in love
Before you close, lock, and then thoroughly barricade this technological door, I’d like to offer some suggestions why neurochemical-induced affection and desire may not be such a bad idea—and how we could prevent its abuse.
Beginning with, it shouldn’t be anything except an extremely well-regulated therapeutic treatment with a set of inordinately strict protocols and near-Orwellian checks and balances.
Whether resulting from emotional or physical trauma, biological disorders, or both, many find it excessively challenging or near-impossible to feel love or desire for others.
Then there are those struggling with debilitatingly painful memories, partners desperately seeking to reconnect, people crippled by sexual shame or guilt, anyone with anxiety who craves even a little relief from their paralyzing fears and self-doubts, and I could keep bombarding you with more examples of why this technology could be beneficial.
And all of them would continue to suffer if we let our fears of “what could be” obscure the reality of “what is needed.”
Love is the honey
Before bidding you a fond adieu, I want to take a moment to be unabashedly daring.
Remember how I went on about how love drugs should always be—emphasis on the always—kept out of the hands of everyone except medical or mental health professionals and then only if they’re closely monitored every step of the way?
Well, I should have opened with “Until humanity can handle it—” as with practically every technology we’ve ever developed, love drugs will gradually transition from regulated to freely available.
Scary, perhaps, though I like to imagine we’ll be socially and intellectually evolved enough to handle it. Maybe even where there’s no clear distinction between naturally occurring and artificially induced emotions. Kind of how we’re getting comfortable with the idea of virtual and “real” reality as two sides of the same coin.
Or, to put it another way, perhaps having control over our emotions is what’ll save humanity—instead of dooming it.