Take two pills and call me in the morning

The love potion has long played a part in the tradition of literature. Shakespeare has Brabantio accuse Othello of enchanting his daughter with “drugs… That weaken motion.” J. K. Rowling, meanwhile, writes of amortentia in magic land, a potion which exudes a different aroma for each person; Hermione smells fresh parchment and Ron Weasley’s hair.

Outside of fiction, however, failed romantics fluster. Save for the ineffectual Spanish fly and promising pills bought drunkenly with fistfuls of pound coins from condom dispensers in pub loos, love powders have proved elusive. There is alcohol, of course, which posters on teenagers’ walls remind us has been helping ugly people have sex since 1862. There is money, assisting hairy-backed millionaires the world over. Power, we are breathlessly informed, is the greatest aphrodisiac of them all. And there is Rohypnol, a more radical approach, like taking a sledgehammer to pop a sometimes not metaphorical cherry. Yet none of these can necessarily promise trust, confidence and happiness – the very fruits of a loving relationship.  

But the development of chemicals that manipulate trust might just snatch the love potion from the realm of Hogwarts and introduce it to the muggle milieu. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “cuddle chemical”. It is the hormone released when a woman gives birth and at orgasm, and it therefore has an understandably potent effect.

In 2005, Michael Kosfeld and others investigated the effect of oxytocin on human trust. Pairs of participants were asked to play a game: Person A was designated the investor and told that he could invest $0, $4, $8 or $12 in Person B, who played the part of the trustee. The amount invested was then tripled and Person B could choose how much money to give back to her investor; or, alternatively, she could decide to keep all the cash for herself. Thus, if Person A threw $8 into the pot (and kept $4 for himself) Person B would have $24 at her disposal. The study found that investors who were given a nasal spray containing oxytocin were significantly more generous, and accordingly more trusting, than those who were not.

Off the back of such research, an American company, Verolabs, has produced an oxytocin nasal spray under the brand name “Liquid Trust”, which promises to create a “trusting and passionate atmosphere,” specifically formulated to “give a boost to the dating and relationship area of your life.” Among its contented customers, it numbers salespeople, singles and managers. A sinister, talking avatar informs visitors to the company’s website that they, too, can harness the power of the hormone and increase people’s trust in them. The spray even comes with a “full two month guarantee”.

The published testimonials are ringing and almost sound too good to be true. Joe, one satisfied customer, writes that his relationship went from “bad to wonderful.” After using “Liquid Trust”, Joe continues, his girlfriend “asked me to marry her.” Oxytocin, Verolabs would have us believe, is the love potion that works, the Spanish fly with wings.

But what if Joe had harboured more sinister intentions? What if, instead of wanting to save his flagging relationship, he had wanted to meet new girls in bars? What if he were to surreptitiously spray it on himself while his intended conquest was powdering her nose? Though Verolabs states clearly that it opposes any use of its products for “immoral or manipulative purposes”, the power of oxytocin unavoidably throws open the possibility of the subtle date rape, one step removed from Rohypnol but surely one step on from a liberal splash of D&G Light Blue. What should the attitude of society be towards these new weapons in the arsenals of the amorous, or, more generally, to the use of chemicals which can induce emotions?

The question is unlikely to go away. As science continues to shed light on how the brain works and how brain processes are manipulated, the opportunities to create drugs that induce feelings of love and trust will grow. The response of the relationship counsellor who struggles to mediate verbally between a warring couple might be temptation to reach for the pen and write out a prescription.  

Or perhaps air-borne oxytocin could soon be pumped through family homes in the same way some governments put fluoride into the water supply. If, as many studies suggest, broken homes are in part to blame for a broken society, then is there some social imperative to consider such means to keep parents happy and together? It would be the logical progression for a society already so reliant on anti-depressants that vets have started doling out Prozac to dogs.
It is worrying that, as the magical becomes the possible, human beings are becoming disconnected both from their bodies and, more broadly, from the natural world.

Technology is slowly turning mankind into machine. Denaturalisation marches on. And just as moods and feelings are increasingly determined by manmade drugs, so relationships with others may soon be formed and maintained in the same way.
Conversely, there is a lingering prejudice against the unnatural, a prejudice that prompts otherwise rational, middle class people spend large sums of money in the organic sections of supermarkets. It has become an implicit, if indulgent, recognition that the close relations of human beings with the earth is important, an acceptance of the maxim that Mother Nature knows best.

Thus, Brabantio, in Othello, having accepted that his daughter did not succumb to the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” on account of “spells and medicines” but rather on account of real love, reluctantly blesses the union. There is something persuasive and authoritative about nature: it is the way, in a quasi religious sense, things are meant to be.  

The frightening alternative is powered by the insidious breakthrough of science – a world where marriages are made not by needling parents, passion, true love or greenbacks but rather a nasal spray available from all major retailers.