by Mike Keating on Tuesday, 11th of March 2014
Ever wonder why a hug from the 'right' person at the end of a long, grueling day feels so great, or why many of us schedule (or wish we could schedule) regular massage appointments? As humans, we’re hardwired to seek out and enjoy physical touch. When it happens, our brains reward us by releasing a calm-inducing hormone/neurotransmitter called oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle” hormone.
Discussion about oxytocin initially focused on its roles in controlling contractions during childbirth, stimulating lactation postbirth, bringing people closer to each other, and inciting physical sexual responses. Further studies have shown that oxytocin’s relevance to our lives extends beyond bonding and birth. When this hormone’s flowing freely, it puts us in a peaceful, happy state of mind; it helps us feel emotionally connected to whoever’s the source of that touch. But oxytocin affects our social selves in ways we don’t even realize—and despite what its cuddly nickname suggests, they’re not all positive.
It helps us read people better.
Various studies have found that raising oxytocin levels can markedly improve facial reading. In a 2006 study at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, fifteen autistic volunteers were given either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo and then asked to listen to a voice. Those with oxytocin were better able to decipher the emotion behind the speaker’s tone. A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science asked thirteen people with Asperger’s to study pictures of faces and answer questions about them. After inhaling oxytocin, the participants looked longer at the faces and even increased eye gazing—both of which people with Asperger’s usually avoid.
It makes us more generous.
The hormone may encourage envy and gloating in competitive situations, but at least it doesn’t make people stingy. In a 2005 University of Zurich study, 178 male volunteers were asked to play an investment game with partners they couldn’t meet. The ones given oxytocin via nasal spray invested more money than the other players did. In previous games that didn’t involve oxytocin at all, the participants gave money only after they saw evidence that the anonymous player was fair-minded.
Without oxytocin, we wouldn’t feel butterflies in our stomach when a crush reaches for our hand, or the rush of affection when a loved one comes into view. We wouldn’t trust anyone or have the desire to help others. In fact, it seems like most of what makes life great has to do with oxytocin. Luckily for us, there are a plethora of methods to increase our levels without someone else’s touch—though that’s always nice, too.
In our series on Ecclesiastes, the wisdom has been to FEAR GOD and ENJOY LIFE. Most of us have probably realized without the help of science that taking long walks, listening to great music, inviting a friend to lunch, and playing with pets are surefire ways to relax. But now that we know what else oxytocin does for us, it’ll encourage us do to these things on a more regular basis. I don’t know about you, but petting puppies and rocking out to a good song sounds the way to go? That’s scientific advice I can get behind. It is also the wisdom of the Book of Ecclesistes.
Hugs are free!
- Ps Mike