Life-long love through medication?
Why do people stay together and why don’t they? Why marry or why break up/divorce? Those are common questions for people to ask themselves at some point during their lifetime. While the act of getting married is seeing a boost in eg. Sweden (with the number of new marriages up with 33% in the past 10 years (due to among other things a larger cultural popularity, more kids being born etc – see embedded article (in Swedish))) we also live in a time when many countries have statistics where one out of two marriages end in divorce (Sweden, US, Spain, Germany, Russia, Belarus, Cuba (even more) etc*). Something that might seem strange to the generation of pensioners and grand-parents around today that married in a time when divorces where not as common and the view on marriage was quite different from what it is today. (See an interesting interview on the topic with sociologist Dr Paul Amato, who has conducted extensive research on marital quality and stability, under the paragraph ‘The 1950s and “companionate marriage”‘ in this blog post where he argues that marriages today have more individualistic/psychological/existential reasons (find one’s soul mate, help each other fulfil one another’s lives and grow as persons) as opposed to the more pragmatic/companionate approach of the 50s and 60s.)
While the view on life-long love and marriage as an institution obviously gets a lot of influences from the trends and tides of the society around it, there are those that argue that there are few things that makes us as happy as being in a relationship. Anders Sandberg, philosopher and computational neuroscientist working for Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, means that people in a relationship live longer, are less ill and generally feel more content with life than those that don’t. Money or intelligence doesn’t even come close in comparison for the importance for our well-being. Thus, as the human enhancement scientist that he is, Dr Sandberg looks to biology to find ways to increase the likelihood of people forming and staying in relationships. According to Dr Sandberg, even though much of society has changed around us in the past 1000s of years, the same is not true for our psychology. The average life time of a person did for a very long time not pass 35 years, meaning that we seldom would be in relationships for more than 15 years – ironically close to the median duration of marriage today – 11 years. In a recent article co-written with Julian Savulescu and published in the New Scientist, Dr Sandberg argues that in order to increase the chances of people’s well-being caused by being in a relationship, while sparing them the pain break-ups can often inflict, we can look to some recent findings from another research article published in The Journal of Neuroscience with experiments on voles in order to find new ways forward.
The results published in The Journal of Neuroscience show that introducing vasopressin (known as one of the ‘love hormones’ together with eg. oxytocin) by gene modification in polygamous male meadow voles made them more monogamous and similar to their cousin, the prairie vole, that is already monogamous as a species (and that also has more receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in their brains from a start). Given their other argument that helping humans stay in relationships would generally imply more happiness for them, Sandberg and Savulescu thus argue that it would be ethically correct to develop methods that would make possible the same biological alterations in humans. Of course, Sandberg admits such methods would have to be used with caution not to have people entrapped in bad relationships. One of the authors of the article in The Journal of Neuroscience, Dr Larry Young, along with Dr Hasse Valum at Karolinska Institutet (who in a recent PhD thesis proved that the same correlations between pair bonding and vasopressin (in males) and oxytocin (in females) could be found in humans), however argue that they don’t believe in creating medicinal treatment based on those findings, especially since there are also potential negative side effects by eg. increased vasopressin in males such as that they become more aggressive and defendant of their partner with higher rates of this hormone.
Even though convention, rather than biology, is more likely to be the reason for the lower divorce rates on a macro scale among pensioners and grand-parents back in their day (and maybe, as a result of holding true to that convention, even today) I think it is still interesting to see how we can unlock some of the secrets of the world around us through science. Let’s see what the future holds. (Apart from being love hormones both vasopressin and oxytocin has shown potential of treating both autism, social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia.)
On a final note, when researching for this blog post I came across another very interesting study showing that friends, rather than family, are more important to help people live longer after the age of 70 according to a recent Australian study (in a way contradicting, or at least weakening, Dr Sandberg’s argumentation above). I think I will have to save that topic for my next blog post. 🙂
Sources: http://www.dn.se/nyheter/vetenskap/livslang-romans-med-hjalp-av-medicin (in Swedish, including short interview with Dr Sandberg)
http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/latest_news/love_machine_engineering_lifelong_romance (abstract of Dr Sandberg’s research article)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2768419/ (full research article in The Journal of Neuroscience)
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aneesprince/7202772588/
*Statistics sources: Sweden: SCB – Central Bureau of Statistics (see above embedded link – in Swedish), US, Spain, Germany (and some other countries): United States Census Bureau – Table 1336 (see above embedded link), Russia, Belarus, Cuba (and many other countries): United Nations Demographic Yearbook 2009-2010 comparing tables 23 and 24 per country (see above embedded link)