DR MAX PEMBERTON: Love is a drug… but not one we can prescribe


DR MAX PEMBERTON: Love is a drug… but not one we can prescribe

  • When we talk about love, we are really describing many very complex emotions 
  • Dr Anna Machin argues that advances in neuroscience mean drugs can be developed to replicate the effect on the brain of falling in love
  • Dr Max Pemberton says that the idea that a pill can hope to mimic its extraordinary interactions is really just wishful thinking 

Love is an inexplicable thing, isn’t it? It’s almost impossible to explain it to someone who’s never experienced it. What’s all the more mysterious is the way it changes over time. 

The feeling of love that, say, a teenager has — that first, giddy, all-consuming feeling that is almost an ache — is quite different to the deep, entwined feeling of love that a couple who have been together for 50 years feels. 

And the types of love people experience are so varied. Is the love a parent has for their child the same as the love someone has for a pet? Can we lump the feelings of love between friends with the feelings of love between family members? 

When we talk about love, we are really describing a lot of very complex emotions. Love can be wonderful but also painful, confusing and upsetting. Can we simply explain all this by brain chemistry? Can it really be reduced to a series of hormones surging around in our heads? 

Dr Anna Machin argues that advances in neuroscience mean drugs can be developed to replicate the effect on the brain of falling in love

Dr Anna Machin argues that advances in neuroscience mean drugs can be developed to replicate the effect on the brain of falling in love

The rational scientist in me would say yes, of course. All our emotions are the result of neurochemistry. 

But, call me an old romantic, there’s part of me that thinks love is more than that, too. It is an extraordinary, mystifying human experience. It defies definition and science simply can’t readily explain or predict it. 

Not everyone agrees with me. Anthropologist Dr Anna Machin argued at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week that advances in neuroscience mean drugs can be developed to replicate the effect on the brain of falling in love and could even be used in couples therapy to help them fall back in love. 

To me this is a reductionist view of romance. While I understand that from a neurological perspective our emotions, thoughts and feelings are mediated through chemical messengers and hormones, it doesn’t take into account the vast complexity of our emotions and how they so often defy expectations, rationality or understanding. 

I suspect we’ll never be able to develop a drug that can mimic falling and being in love. Or indeed any emotion. 

Take a simple example — we understand that serotonin is involved in feeling happy. More serotonin, more happiness, or so the theory goes. So antidepressants — which work by slowing the rate at which serotonin is broken down in the brain and therefore increasing the total amount available — should make people happy. 

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says that the idea that a pill can hope to mimic its extraordinary interactions is really just wishful thinking

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says that the idea that a pill can hope to mimic its extraordinary interactions is really just wishful thinking

This works in some patients. But take a person whose child has died, for example. They feel desperately, unimaginably sad. Does an antidepressant suddenly make them feel happier? Absolutely not. Because no pill will bring their child back and they know that. 

It seems our model of understanding the brain is grossly deficient when it comes to really grasping how our emotions work. When it comes to love, we are a long way off being able to even slightly understand it and I find that rather wonderful. 

I love that there’s a mystery to love. For years, scientists and psychologists have tried to create questionnaires and screening tools to predict who will fall in love with whom. 

But they have been repeatedly thwarted by how unpredictable and strange love is and how sometimes it endures and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s part of what makes human interactions so exciting — and, at times, bewildering and frustrating. What a miserable world it would be if love — the most wonderful of human emotions — could be reduced down to a questionnaire or set of measurements or a pill. 

It reminds me of someone I used to work with. He was public school-educated, wealthy, smart and handsome. He worked in surgery. He came across as incredibly conventional — I’d always assumed he’d marry someone similar, maybe a GP or lawyer — and settle down and live in a leafy suburb, have children and probably take up golf. While I worked with him he had a string of very attractive girlfriends, all from similar social backgrounds. 

It came as quite a surprise when he suddenly started dating one of the catering staff nearly 20 years older than him, a woman who was lovely but not conventionally attractive. 

After a year, he went to visit her family in Eastern Europe and — seemingly spontaneously — came back married. They were the most unlikely couple but, somehow, it worked. 

He shortly resigned from his prestigious training job and they went travelling. They live a nomadic lifestyle, he’s never had children and, to my knowledge, never taken up golf. 

You’d never put them together, but clearly something clicked and they remain inseparable more than a decade later.

It’s part of the magic of human relations that one person just seems to click with another, and it’s not always apparent or obvious to an outsider why or how it works. It just does. 

The brain is the most complex object in the universe. The idea that a pill can hope to mimic its extraordinary interactions, particularly when it comes to love is, I’m afraid, wishful thinking. 

Sophie supports Dame Debs

The Countess of Wessex (pictured) is supporting Dame Deborah James's bowel cancer fund

Dame Deborah James's (pictured)fund has now raised an incredible £6.7million

Max is delighted to see the Countess of Wessex (left) wearing one of Dame Deborah James’s (right) ‘Rebellious Hope’ T-shirts for bowel cancer 

The Countess of Wessex has given a boost to Dame Deborah James’s bowel cancer fund by wearing one of her ‘Rebellious Hope’ T-shirts. The fund has now raised an incredible £6.7million. I’m delighted to see the Countess of Wessex using her platform to promote this cause. I used to work in bowel surgery and saw first-hand what a devastating disease this can be. Anything that helps to raise awareness gets a big thumbs-up from me. 

Jenni Murray wrote last week about the term ‘woman’ being erased from NHS guidance. I tweeted about it and was surprised by the number of doctors who replied in agreement yet begged me to keep their names private. What has the world come to that health workers are scared to say biological sex exists? 

Dr Max Pemberton reveals that the idea that sugar causes hyperactivity in children is a well-debunked myth

Dr Max Pemberton reveals that the idea that sugar causes hyperactivity in children is a well-debunked myth

  • Mike Tindall has revealed the reason for Prince Louis’s mischievous antics during the Jubilee celebrations: he had been consuming handfuls of sweets behind the scenes and had a ‘complete sugar high’. I have some bad news — the idea that sugar causes hyperactivity in children is a well-debunked myth. In fact, more than 12 double-blind, randomised controlled trials have been done specifically looking at this claim and, in all of them, they found no link between sugar intake and children’s behaviour. Interestingly, in one study, parents were told their children had been given sugar when in fact they hadn’t and then noted that their children were more hyperactive anyway! It’s possible the myth is based on research into artificial colours in fizzy drinks — there is some evidence to suggest that certain additives (E-numbers) in sugary sweets and drinks can cause hyperactivity in susceptible children. Maybe this has caused confusion and people now wrongly attribute it to the sugar rather than the additives. However, most of these E-numbers are no longer used, so chances are Louis was just being a cheeky boy. But he entertained the nation, so good for him! 

Dr Max prescribes… 

AN EGG A DAY

People who eat an egg a day have higher levels of good cholesterol, which lowers to risk of heart disease

People who eat an egg a day have higher levels of good cholesterol, which lowers to risk of heart disease 

Eggs have had bad press in recent years because of concerns about cholesterol. But new research shows this concern is misplaced. It revealed that people who eat one a day have higher levels of good cholesterol, which lowers the risk of heart disease. 

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