The 'love' hormone isn't so lovely

July 24, 2015

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Oxytocin has been called 'the great facilitator of life' and rarely have we celebrated a chemical like we do oxytocin. People get this bad boy tattooed on their body and I've seen necklaces and...


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Oxytocin has been called 'the great facilitator of life' and rarely have we celebrated a chemical like we do oxytocin. People get this bad boy tattooed on their body and I've seen necklaces and t-shirts depicting it. It's an improbable fashion choice. It's hard to imagine a more unwieldy group of shapes. You're far better off getting a science boner for something more amenably simplistic, like seratonin or dopamine. Why is it so well loved? Well, it has a storied history of being involved in all the great things in life.

The Love Hormone

As early as 1906 we recognised that oxytocin was involved in baby-making. Firstly, we noticed it was involved in contractions (in fact it's named after the Greek for 'quick birth' as a result). Then lactation. Then its appearance in the parent-child bonding experience. In fact, a great deal of the research focuses on its role in the reproductive sphere. But soon, we started to see the research latch onto the clues scattered among the papers written about Oxt (a less romantic abbreviation would be hard to come by), and we started to see that it was involved in attachment, in maternal behaviour and even in sex! Oxytocin had become the 'love' hormone.

The Moral Molecule

In 2011, Paul Zak did a TED talk. He talked about his research on Oxytocin in transactional style experiments. He found pretty conclusively that Oxt is related to an increases in how much we trust someone. Since then, he and many other researchers have found links between our lovely hormone and altruism, generosity and even empathy!

Alchemical Alcohol

In 2015, research conducted by Dr Ian Mitchell and his colleagues looked a bit closer at Oxt and noticed that although it was involved in those prosocial behaviours, what it was doing was suppressing activity in the front of the brain and in our emotional centres (prefrontal and limbic cortical circuits). Essentially it was giving the red light for normal social inhibitors like fear, anxiety and stress.

Dr Mitchell recognised that this was surprisingly similar to what alcohol does to the body (which raises questions about his lifestyle choices around the time of this particular research project). As he dug a little deeper, he discovered that, when administered nasally (like Paul Zak advocated in his TED talk), the results are a lot like alcohol consumption. The same thing that was responsible for Paul Zak's increased trust and generosity was also involved in social confidence and anxiety reduction. But the sinister side is there too. Oxt was also responsible for increases in aggression, more boastfulness, more jealousy, and a more 'us-vs-them' mentality. Mitchell also noticed that it affected our sense of fear, which led to a spike in risk taking.

Synthetic Socialisation

So what's the verdict? Well, Oxytocin isn't alcohol. And realistically the lab experiments that produced the above effects were contrived enough that I doubt we'll see Oxt being served at the bar any time soon. The reality is that Oxytocin appears to be a social hormone. It is involved in a great deal of social processes or processes that are vital to the formation and maintenance of relationships (particularly those that lead to baby-making). But to see that the way it goes about making us more social is so similar to the reasons we love alcohol has some pretty interesting implications for just how important being social is to us. As Ernest Hemingway said,
I drink to make other people more interesting
Do you drink to get some of the 'Dutch courage'? Learn how being brave can make you more creative. Or if you're drinking because you're bored, learn how happiness can be synthesised, here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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