A biochemical produced in the brain called oxytocin has entered popular culture in recent years as the “love,” “cuddle” or “bonding” hormone. That’s a lot to choose from.
Oxytocin plays a role in producing contractions at childbirth and in helping in lactation, but we’ve known that for more than a century. Experiments in the 1990s showed that it was instrumental in leading prairie voles, known for their monogamous behavior, to pick a lifelong mate. Later studies then demonstrated that the chemical contributes to trust and social interactions in various animals, including humans.
After the vole study, interest in the nine–amino acid peptide started to rise. In a TED talk economist Paul Zak called it “the moral molecule” because of its link to trust, empathy and prosperity.
The Internet DIY brain-makeover market then took up the meme. Vero Labs of Daytona Beach, Fla., sells “Connekt” oxytocin spray for $79 that purports to “strengthen workplace bonds” and “increase positive self-awareness.” The company has also come out with a his-and-her“Attrakt” spray that mixes oxytocin with pheromones—chemical sex attractants that help mice get it on, but whose role in triggering mating behavior in humans is hotly disputed. (Researchers who study oxytocin warn prospective buyers away from these purchases, saying that long-term use in humans has not been studied.)
It is not all marketing and placebos, however. A substantive body of research suggests that oxytocin—and a related molecule called vasopressin—promote various types of social behavior. Participants in one study that involved playing an investment game forked over more money to an investment banker after taking a sniff. Oxytocin levels rose in a study of new parents as they became accustomed to living with their newborns. And trials are now under way to assess whether an oxytocin spray may help allay some of the social deficits of young children diagnosed with autism.
Oxytocin has another side to it that makes it something less than Love Potion No. 9. Recent research shows that it can intensify a negative memory of a social experience—such as the recollection of your boss yelling in your face in front of co-workers. It may even increase the likelihood of aggression and violence toward others who are not part of your social group.
Oxytocin without question has an influence on social dealings, but its effect may depend heavily on circumstance. The American Psychological Association’s Science Watch had two great quotes from scientists about oxytocin that caution against pigeonholing it as having any fixed role in governing social relationships:
“Oxytocin is not the love hormone,” says Larry Young of Emory University. “It’s tuning us into social information and allowing us to analyze it at higher resolution.”
And from Shelley Taylor of the University of California, Los Angeles: “It’s never a good idea to map a psychological profile onto a hormone; they don’t have psychological profiles.”
That means that it may be awhile, if ever, before you are able to ratchet up that lovin’ feeling with a whiff from an inhaler—best to stick with the cabernet and the bubbly.
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