Part of my job as a Science Guy™ is to kidnap widely disseminated platitudes, those comfort blankets of sweet sappiness that folks love to slap on top of pictures of sunsets and people in love, pull out their souls Temple of Doom style with my cold, scientific hands, and squeeze all the fun and truth out of them. It comes with the job description.
We need to talk about oxytocin.
If you Google oxytocin, which is what you do if you want to find out more about it, Wikipedia gives you this: “A mammalian hormone that acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain.” So far, so good. But oxytocin has been attributed to a lot of things that, well, there’s not a lot of strong scientific evidence for. And what there IS evidence for is not as simple as you’ve been led to believe. It’s getting bad out there. If you don’t believe me, just check out all the Tumblr posts tagged #oxytocin. If scientific evidence is your thing, maybe you want to read on?
This morning, if you were very quiet, you may have heard the screams of a livid British science writer blown in on the early Westerly breeze. Ed Yong, author of Not Exactly Rocket Science, had a conniption about oxytocin. Researcher Paul Zak, featured in this TED talk, had given his opinion on oxytocin as the “moral molecule”. You may have also heard it referred to as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle chemical”. While that makes us feel good (I mean, who isn’t intrigued by the idea that we could biologically explain love?), it does a horrible job at fully describing what oxytocin does.
Yes, oxytocin is released when you think about someone you love, from eye contact to intercourse. Yes, it helps mothers bond with their children. It is also released to make social situations more comfortable. But it also can make you feel envious. It can make people act less social or cooperative. A whole mess of other contradictory examples from Ed (who I also stole “schmoxytocin” from) are collected here.
It’s a complicated molecule, with a deep evolutionary history. And that history goes back long before vertebrates even thought about cuddling and canoodling. It probably does some of what people say, but how it affects our social behavior is probably more about the specific situation than it is dictated by C43H66N12O12S2.
So oxytocin wears many biological hats. You must realize that each of those hats is shared with a multitude of other signals and influences, past and present. I realize that’s a pretty awkward-looking hat, but work with me here. We need to study oxytocin carefully. Prescribing it may one day help people reach their emotionally fulfilled peak in life, to conquer fears and to overcome pain and loneliness. But it also induces premature childbirth and lactation. So, you know, maybe be a little careful.
If you’d like a take-home message, let it be this: It’s a romantic idea, in the truest sense of the word, that a neuro-hormone like oxytocin would be the cause of all that makes us feel warm and snuggly and the cure to all which makes us feel alone and cold. But things like love and parenting and social comfort are some of the most complex behaviors that we’ve developed in our journey to become human. They simply can’t, and won’t, be explained by a single chemical.
Except for maybe alcohol.
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