Let’s debate about love, baby

It's in the air (Photographer: Steve Snodgrass).

by Josh Green

The power of love is a curious thing. We sob when we are trying to deal with an Achy Breaky Heart, we get invigorated when we are trying to find Somebody to Love and we are ecstatic when we find out She Loves You. Some might say that we are Addicted to Love. Okay, I’ll stop with the song titles now (I won’t really) but I encourage the reader to think up more whilst reading this article.

Can the power of love be a damaging thing more than a curious thing? Controversial discussion points have recently cropped up with regards to being addicted to love. Considering that addictions are usually associated to drugs like alcohol and cocaine the idea of having this with the concept of love can be seen, at its best, a false equivalency and, at its worst, an unhelpful and dangerous comparison.

With regards to recent developments on love’s addictive grasp, a recent study was published that has definitively expanded the scientific and moral arguments surrounding love. From recent research by Oxford University’s Brain Earp (based at Oxford University’s Centre of Neuroethics) and the rest of the research team has suggested that there are two types of love addiction. These two types of love addiction contrast as one is proposed to be ‘more severe’ than the other.

Earp and his team of love took a grand total of 64 studies that looked into the nature of love and its addictive ways. The team have published their review findings in the journal ‘Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology’ of this year. Their studies were taken between the large gap of time between 1956 and 2016. So how is this love and its addictive disposition actually considered? Anders Sandberg, from the same institution as Brain Earp, has stated that when the desire of loving is not wanted by the individual (and leads to objectionably bad scenarios such as abuse).

The reviewers concluded that when people are desperate to dance with somebody who loves them (and get back into a relationship essentially) they have what is being dubbed as a ‘narrow’ form of love addiction. This form of addiction, the authors state, is the dangerous form of love addiction. They discuss and use previously researched models, by other academics, on how addiction to drugs occurs and apply it here about the love drug. They compare their findings to a largely accepted model of addiction which states that addiction occurs when the consumption of the drug leads to the brain (and the person) exhibiting unusual patterns of behaviour. These types of abnormalities are said to not exist in other brains that are ‘non-addicted’.

A common and a popular interpretation of this concept, with experts, is that the drugs somehow ‘co-opt’ the neurotransmitters in our brains. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that do the absolutely essential job of transmitting signals, which therefore communicates information, from a neuron (a nerve cell) to another ‘target’ cell such as a nerve, muscle or gland cell. It’s a way that the body communicates with itself essentially. These messages, when ‘co-opted’ will reward the person when an activity is done. The more ‘natural’ actions such as food, that feeling of wrapping up warm in your duvet and love itself become dwarfed by the reward mechanism for the drug taking. Interestingly, this model has the conclusion that love can never be truly addictive due to the unnatural abnormalities that addictive drug use is shown to give to brains. This therefore means that the trait is something peculiar to drug addicts and not commonly seen with all people who may outwardly show ‘addiction’ to food or love which is never on the same level mechanically as the drug addiction scenario.

Contrasting this, there have also been comparisons made between binge eating and drug use which also adds another potential mechanism to the narrow love addiction form. The idea suggests that the overconsumption of food, for example, can lead to an abnormally high ‘natural reward’ systems developing in where similar mechanisms that are present with drug addiction can be seen. Thus, the researchers at Oxford focused in on using these established thoughts to justify their conclusions using their data. The team found evidence of what is dubbed ‘broad’ love addiction as well. The broad level of addiction is that which still exceeds ‘normal levels of love’ but has ‘controllable symptoms’.

The division between broad and narrow love addiction has been met with some resistance. Lucy Brown, based in the Einstein College of Medicine in New York, was one of the first people to suggest that love is an addictive substance. Brown made the case that love being addictive came about millions of years ago, via evolution, as a survival mechanism between couples. Brown is a firm critic of Earp’s review paper and has their stance that there is a broad type of love that can be dealt with if ‘broken’ via usual methods of counselling, anti-depressants or even just time.

Perhaps the most controversial point with the review study is the consideration of treating the ‘narrow’ addiction with methods similar to how we treat drug addiction now. Earp and the team’s review paper, in its very nature, needs to be taken seriously as it is an ethical conundrum that many of us can relate to. If someone has the symptoms of addiction but can overcome them with time, doesn’t this provide a way for the person to understand and interpret their emotions rather than dismissing the ‘abnormalities’ in the brain during love addiction. Although, would it actually be helpful and only be used on the devastated; giving individuals a new lease of life in some cases? One thing is certain: the debate needs to continue about the Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

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