Ahhh That Feels Nice!
Ever wondered why, you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, when you look at cute kittens, sweet puppies or tiny human babies sitting inside pumpkins? The reason, according to animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, is that we release oxytocin from the hypothalamus in the brain. Oxytocin, also called the 'hormone of love' or 'cuddle chemical' is also pumped out of the brain, when you cuddle your partner or children, make love, stroke your pets and give birth. Basically the oxytocin chemical cascade is set off by what you see, taste, touch and even smell (I'll leave some of that to your own imaginations).
During the birth process, oxytocin regulates contractions and is later involved in the milk 'let down' reflex'. When the baby is born and you look in to those wide, innocent eyes, oxytocin flows again and you want to lay down your life for this wonderous infant. The many sacrifices of motherhood (and fatherhood) are driven by oxytocin, but it feels sooo good.
Interesting little creatures, called prairie voles, have revealed much to scientists about oxytocin. You see, prairie voles are very sociable and appear to be monogamous in their mate relationships, pairing up for life. Another very closely related vole , called a montane vole, however, does not form pair bonds, but likes one night stands. Yet, these creatures share more then 99% DNA. The difference it turns out, is that the faithful vole, has brain receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin (hormone important for social behaviour) in brain areas related to reward and reinforcement. The reward center of the brain, gives us, and the faithful voles a shot of dopamine, when they do things that feel good and that makes us and them want to do it again. This is also the reason I can't stop eating chocolate (sigh).
A Lovable Vole
Oxytocin and Facebook
You can also spike oxytocin when you get together with friends. If you find yourself feeling good, making eye contact and feeling all gooey, then it's probably oxytocin. Scientists, are now studying Facebook, to see if 'logging on' can facilitate oxytocin release. Maybe, the reason you love getting on Facebook, is the 'feel good' oxytocin shot and the sense of friendship and connection.
Oxytocin however it seems, is also important in feelings of empathy and trust. Paul Zak, the director of Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University, California, described oxytocin as 'social glue', which increases love, trust and neighbourliness. Recently at a talk he gave in Edinburgh, Zak sprayed staff with an oxytocin spray and caused spontaneous group hugging. Synthetic oxytocin however, is mostly used to induce labour and breast milk 'let down', but could it be used to create a happier more trusting society?
Chronic stress inhibits oxytocin, so could modern society, which is high on stress and fear production, also be decreasing our oxytocin and therefore bonding, trust and love? Michel Odent, a renown French obstetrician, writes in his book The Scientification of Love, that the human race is paying the price with difficult childbirth, low sex drive (huh?) and breastfeeding problems. So what about oxytocin synthetic sprays?
There is a company which sells synthetic oxytocin, which they term 'liquid trust', but what are the downsides? A study in 2009 published in Biological Psychiatry, found that oxytocin increased many behaviours, including ENVY and schadenfreude (gloating) Ah oh! that's not so good. Further testing showed, that these results were from people who were sensitive to rejection. Cooperative behaviour, increased in those who sought intimacy (why does everything get too complicated?)
Love and Cuddles
However, if in the end this all sounds too complicated, the easiest way to release oxytocin is to just cuddle your Teddy!