THE YIN AND YANG OF THE "LOVE HORMONE"
studies have demonstrated that oxytocin is responsible for much of our good behavior; it enhances our generosity, it promotes our feelings of trust, it counteracts depressive feelings, and it bonds us to our friends, family and community. It is responsible for why we feel good when we are compassionate and helpful to others and when others console and protect us.
Oxytocin affects other mammals in a similar way. Samples of body fluids can be used to detect changes in the level of the love hormone in mammal's bodies. In one study, female rats that had an aversion to baby rats suddenly found their own babies to be irresistible; oxytocin literally transformed their brains.
A dog and a goat became playful friends in another study. Before and after a play date, their blood samples revealed the dog experienced a 48% increase in oxytocin after playing, and the goat experienced an astounding 210% increase, a change that the researcher had only seen in humans when mothers see their babies, when lovers meet, or when one experiences an extreme act of kindness. By comparison, increases in oxytocin in humans hover near: 10% when you shake hands with someone you expect to like; 50% when you greet someone you are especially attracted to; and 100% when a grandchild runs to hug a grandparent.
Females and their babies seem to be the primary beneficiaries of oxytocin, likely because it is a powerful bonding agent between mother and babies and is instrumental in milk production while nursing (of course, no hormone works alone in our bodies; for example prolactin, also produced by the pituitary gland, has a complementary effect). One study confirmed that oxytocin levels rose significantly in both the baby and mother when they made eye contact.
Another study determined that a similar mutual rise in the hormone occurs in dogs and their owners when they gaze at each other. This partly explains why dogs were more readily domesticated than other mammals. The study also noted that the oxytocin increase was greater in dog owners who previously owned more dogs. Wolves, on the other hand, tend to avoid eye contact and are less easily domesticated.
The love hormone is thought to be responsible for humans collecting in tribes throughout evolution, the strongest bonds eventually being between a pair of devoted individuals. The bonds weaken roughly in proportion how remote a personal relationship becomes. And that is where the dark side of oxytocin enters.
Of course, the love hormone cannot violate the indivisible forces of yin and yang. If love is the yang, tribal conflict is the yin. The yin and yang philosophy is built on the belief that opposing forces often are also complimentary. Oxytocin bonds people. It is responsible for the cohesion of families and communities. But that tribal bond is easily transformed into conflict when a unfamiliar tribes meet and mix.
The love hormone can trigger aggressive action against outsiders in defense of a bonded group. Often the aggression is understandably in defense of one's group. However, in a double blind study, when some group members were given a placebo and others were given oxytocin, members given oxytocin were more likely to launch preemptive strikes against outsiders. The hormone-induced aggression was not due to greed of other personal gain but to a tendency to become more aggressively protective of one's mates. In other words oxytocin can exacerbate inter-group conflict rather than restraining it.
Other studies reveal that members of a group with higher levels of oxytocin are more protective of the group and tend to become more homogeneous in their behavior. Additionally, there are a number of experiments that demonstrate that members of a group being given oxytocin (rather than a placebo) have a greater tendency to like people who become aligned with the group, and when outsiders are seen as threatening, they become more competitive and more protective. The group members given oxytocin also were more willing to lie and engage in other deceptive behavior than were members of the control group. Researchers point out that oxytocin does not directly cause racism or other inter-group hatred but enhanced ethnocentrism coupled with an increased tendency to launch preemptive strikes can lead to the same result.
Finally, research shows that oxytocin-induced aberrant and antisocial behavior is more the result of group dynamics fundamental changes in the individual members of the group. Perhaps this explains how cults can be seeded with individuals who are quite ordinary and otherwise normal prior to acting as an integrated member of the cult.
"Groups" as discussed here once meant gatherings of people in physical proximity to one another. Today it increasingly means people communicating using social media. There is strong evidence that people who substitute social media like Facebook and Twitter for face-to-face interactions have significantly lower levels of endogenous oxytocin than those who gather in the old fashioned manner. I could not find solid research on the implications of this trend but I will be monitoring studies as they surface. Here are samples questions lingering in my mind.
- What changes in individual and group behavior can we expect from the diminished levels of oxytocin caused by social media?
- Will the resulting physical isolation that results from social media drive people to devise other ways to bring oxytocin levels back to normal?
- What effect will virtual reality and artificial intelligence have on our overall hormone balance?
- Will the incidence of depression increase?
- Are trends in current social norms (for example school shootings, political divisiveness, increasing acceptance of immoral and unethical behavior related to declining oxytocin levels?
- What is the current research on synthesizing oxytocin to counteract depression, autism, etc. without the adverse side effects of higher doses than the body produces?