2000s >> 2008 >> no-1246-june-2008

Pathfinders: Love is the Drug

 In a lighter moment the other day, the present writer penned a short tale about a society at war which agreed for humane reasons to exempt all couples in love from military service, an infallible test for love being available in the form of an MRI scan of the hypothalamus.What followed was the black-market proliferation of Cupidol, a drug to make people fall in love with anyone. This story, as may be surmised, was
intended as futuristic comedy.

 As if to prove that fiction can always be trumped by fact, what came through the door a week later, in the May 17 issue of New Scientist, was the story of how MRI scans of the hypothalamus, part of the limbic system of the brain which governs emotions, are being used to track the neurotransmitter oxytocin, known as the ‘love hormone’. This hormone is now the subject of intense research as a possible new wonder therapy for so-called people-problem mental disorders, as well as its offshoot commercial potential as a recreational love drug that
would beat Ecstasy – pants down, presumably.

 Oxytocin seems to be released in varying degrees and pulses during social interactions, and in strong doses during romantic and sexual encounters, it reduces stress, aids relaxation and assists in bonding. Studies suggest that blocking receptors of this neurotransmitter results
in the turning-off of bonding patterns in prairie voles, and rats and mice stop nurturing their young or even recognising their own familiars. Its function appears to be to associate social interaction with pleasure, and it works in tandem with the ‘reward’ transmitters dopamine and
opioids to create a feel-good effect.

 The implications, according to the article, could be enormous for human psychological disorders that arise from relationships with other humans, among them depression, personality disorders, psychosis, social phobias and autism. But before one gets too excited, one must bear in mind the cogent point Ed Blewitt makes in this issue (page 9), that biology is no quick fix for endemic social problems which are rooted in the way society is organised, a point doubtless conceded yet scarcely emphasised by science-based writers. If there was a drug for socialism, for example, it wouldn’t work anyway.

 Still, the general trend in that perennially polarised debate between the environmental and the biological determinists seems to be settling on a
middle ground where cause and effect are bound up together in a still little understood feedback mechanism. Somehow, our relationships with other people affect our body chemistry, and in turn our body chemistry affects our relationships with other people. What is significant about such a recursive causeand- effect loop is that you can intervene at any point, and even at all points, to disturb or transform it.

 Imagine, for example, that somebody wrote a self-help book that actually worked, as proposed in Will Ferguson’s 2002 novel Happiness. Would the social institutions of capitalist coercion and wage-slavery begin to crumble and break under the weight of joyful anti-capitalist non-cooperation, as Ferguson gleefully suggests? Presumably not, or not right away. If self-help books could cause revolutions, Marx’s Capital would have been the last self-help book in history.

 But it is tempting to speculate just how close the artificial bond of identification between system and psyche, referred to by Peter Rigg (page 11), would continue to be if people, either through drugs or DIY therapy, weren’t quite so devastatingly messed up by the social order they help maintain.

 In reality, the biggest problems with any pharmaceutical road to earthly paradise are first, that the effects would wear off and you’d have to keep re-dosing and second, and more to the point, that even if citizen worker got herself loved up and liberated, the bosses still have the loot and the law. That, and a cold and distinctly unloving gleam in their eye. Like it or not, conscious political action will not come out of a 30 milligram dose of delight to the limbic system. For that you have to rely on the more prosaic technologies of reason, democracy and

 Research into such frontier territory as neurobiology, while not offering any magic bullet for social or psychological disorders under capitalism, certainly should be explored and would be pursued in socialism too, because of its potential for insight into how our minds work, what happens chemically when we relate to other people, and when we don’t. And this in turn may offer us further insights into how best to organise our social and democratic structures, given that in socialism we will be at liberty, for the first time, to debate such things as a matter of conscious collective design.

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