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Why Can’t We Use the Word ‘Love’ in Psychedelic Research?

And how psychedelic researchers hope to change this.

Key points

  • Using the word ‘love’ in psychedelic research has been largely discouraged.
  • This has been due to difficulties in quantifying it, as well as its cultural connotations.
  • This will soon change as researchers are now working on an inventory to measure love in psychedelic research.
cottonbro/ Pexels
Source: cottonbro/ Pexels

Practitioners and researchers within the psychedelic space say that one of the major ways in which psychedelics work is by expanding one’s capacity to love. However, using the word ‘love’ in the scientific community has been actively discouraged to the extent that in the last 50 years, just one peer-reviewed article relating to psychedelics included the word ‘love’ in its title- and as a reference to a song. So why is this?

Part of the reason may be because ‘love’ is difficult to define. Many theories and perspectives exist to describe it- from the Ancient Greek philosophical definitions that divide it into six quadrants to the neurobiological musings of modern science.

And while these all form pieces of a larger puzzle, love, as an equalizer between disciplines and at its most profound for every person, is an experience. Words and theories can only go so far. To really know what this is, one needs to feel it- and encapsulating that feeling is hard.

Cultural connotations attached to the word ‘love’ make this even more difficult- especially due to its association with romantic attraction. For some, this makes love difficult to communicate to another in a non-romantic context- such as between friends, professionally or in a clinical circumstance- without fear of being misconstrued.

How do we currently deal with 'love'?

All of this doesn’t of course mean that ‘love’ hasn’t been defined by other means- be it in popular culture, scientific research or the therapist’s office. ‘Unconditional positive regard’ is one such concept used by therapists that cleverly disguises the concept of ‘love’ with phrases like ‘I care deeply about you’ or ‘I have love for you’.

Other ways include discussion of ‘love’ and ‘happy’ hormones in the brain such as oxytocin and serotonin and musings on neurological networks that activate in relation to feelings of ‘love’. Simply put, many aspects of love are present in our vernacular- as long as they omit the raw word itself.

It should thus come as no surprise that, even though we have metrics and instruments to measure various aspects of love, so far, we have no scientific inventory within psychedelic research to measure love per se. This of course complicates research into the topic- be it to understand its therapeutic value or how it interacts with various aspects of science.

How will this change?

Happily however, this is set to change. Psychologist, psychedelics researcher and co-developer of emotion-focused treatment modalities, Dr Adele Lafrance, alongside various colleagues, is setting out to close this gap. Currently, she and other researchers are in the early stages of developing an inventory to measure love in the context of psychedelic experiences.

So far, it consists of five domains: feeling love for others and the outside world, receiving love from others and the outside world, self-love, ‘being love’ (in which boundaries between ourselves and others are no longer there, and no longer matter) and the healing love felt between a therapist and their client.

Ultimately, Lafrance and colleagues hope the inventory will be used in both therapeutic and research contexts to understand more about how love impacts psychedelic experiences and overall health. Given the powerful experiences of love enabled by psychedelics, one of its first ports of call will be to measure love during psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy as a key factor towards healing.

There’s hope within the psychedelic community that bringing love into the realms of science will help destigmatize the word, and in so doing, encourage further research on its properties, and its role as a healing modality.

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