Every year about this time, Brian Earp’s phone starts ringing and his email inbox fills up.
Get known as a sage of love, even if it’s as the anti-Hallmark, and that sort of thing’s bound to happen with Valentine’s Day approaching.
It wasn’t anything the 30-year-old bioethicist and part-time singer-actor planned. Not unlike falling in love, it just sort of happened.
Earp is based at Oxford University, but this year he is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Centre in Garrison, N.Y. His field is philosophy, psychology and ethics. He started off producing long papers on metaphysics that he said went largely unread. He didn’t like “writing arcane articles that don’t touch on anything that anybody recognizes as real life.”
About eight years ago, he stumbled with a colleague into research to do with love and the brain — more particularly, whether medication could perhaps help the latter cope with the former when relationships hit the skids.
In that line of work, Earp found all the “real life” he could handle.
“I had to do a lot of research into the history of marriage and relationships and also learn a lot about psychoactive substances that I myself had not had any experience with,” he told the Toronto Star.
Last year, New Scientist magazine put his paper “If I Could Just Stop Loving You: Anti-Love Biotechnology and the Ethics of a Chemical Breakup” on the cover — and his reputation took off.
Earp says that it isn’t just a song lyric that love is a drug. In terms of effects on the brain, they are neurochemically equivalent. And using “anti-love biotechnology” might be a way of fighting fire with fire when love becomes addiction.
For instance, the fixation on love interests can resemble the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If people in abusive relationships knew they needed to get out, but were unable to break the attachment, wouldn’t they be justified in taking medication to help them break ties with the abuser?
Already, Earp said, medication such as antidepressants may help someone re-engage with life and, in that sense, medications “already have ramifications for relationships,” help restore “the ability to care and worry about other people’s feelings.”
“We don’t have to look far into the future and consider sci-fi scenarios,” he said. “I would argue that there are drugs that are already widely used … I think we should be considering the effects of drugs on relationships.”
For instance, he cites research from the University of Zurich that suggests use of inter-nasal oxytocin (as an adjunct to couples counselling) increases positive communication and reduces cortisol levels during conflict.
The prevailing taboo on studying certain psychoactive substances is beginning to “thaw a little bit,” Earp said. “It’s beginning to be possible for mainstream researchers to do some controlled studies on the effects of these different drugs.”
As to his other passion, Earp appeared last summer in a production of Cabaret in Seattle and next month he’ll be back there to workshop a new play. At the moment, he is — expertise notwithstanding — single.
Is there a downside in matters of the heart to knowing as much as he does about the brain?
“Some of the papers that I wrote were co-authored with my girlfriend at the time, which was very interesting,” he said. “We’d reflect on the history of marriage and what was happening with our brain chemistry. There was definitely some of that. But we parted amicably.”
Is it possible his professional expertise has set the bar rather high for himself in entering new relationships?
“I think there would be some of that,” he laughed. “I think there would be some idea that, yeah, I knew what I was doing.”