My Dangerous Idea.
Shortly before Christmas in 2005 I received an email from John Brockman, a fine writer, well know New York literary agent, and founding editor of Edge.org, a web site devoted to discussions of cutting edge science. He was inviting me to submit an entry for a compilation he had entitled “What is your dangerous idea?”
Last week my entry appeared in his new book, “WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable” Edited by Brockman, with an Introduction by Steven Pinker and Afterword by Richard Dawkins. It was a privilege to be part of this endeavor so when HarperCollins asked me to help them promote the book by doing a series of live radio spots, by phone, I accepted.
So, having talked about this all day yesterday, I feel compelled to discuss my idea here. Some 100 million prescriptions for antidepressants are written annually in the United States. Because these drugs are becoming generic, they will soon be widely used worldwide as well. Many are SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These drugs raise levels of serotonin in brain--a good idea when you are horribly depressed: These drugs blunt the emotions, curb obsessive thinking and help you sleep.
BUT serotonin enhancers also suppress the dopamine system in the brain. And dopamine circuits become super active when you feel intense romantic love. So, connecting the dots, I hypothesize that when you take these drugs, you can jeopardize your ability to fall in love and/or stay in love.
After giving a speech that included my idea at an annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New York City, it was picked up by the New York Times. This apparently stimulated a medical doctor in Texas to write the Times the following letter: “After two bouts of depression in ten years, my therapist recommended I stay on serotonin-enhancing antidepressants indefinitely. As appreciative as I was to have regained my health, I found that my usual enthusiasm for life was replaced with blandness. My romantic feelings for my wife declined drastically. With the approval of my therapist, I gradually discontinued my medication. My enthusiasm returned and our romance is now as strong as ever. I am prepared to deal with another bout of depression if need be, but in my case the long-term side effects of antidepressants render them off limits.”
I can’t tell you how many people have emailed me similar stories.
Some people are chronically and severely depressed. They may need to take one of these drugs for life. I am not trying to minimize their path to sanity and comfort. But many “normal” folks are taking these drugs for reasons of temporary malaise, and then continuing to use them after the depression has lifted. These are the people that concern me. We all know these drugs cripple your sex drive (in 73% of users). But humanity has inherited other brain systems for reproduction as well, among them the neural mechanism for romantic love. And these men and women may be jeopardizing this brain system too.
What is a world without love? If patterns of human love subtly change, all sorts of social and political atrocities can escalate.