Monthly Archives: February 2011

Big Love & Other Oxytocin Myths


My husband snapped this photo of me & our firstborn enjoying a stroll through the Muir Woods redwood park this Valentine’s weekend, exactly 30 years after he & I walked the same path. Everybody say, “Aww,” cuz that’s the last sentimental sentence in this pseudo-science-debunking post.

In 1953 Vincent du Vigneaud synthesized the so-called “pro-social” neuropeptide, Oxytocin (OT), for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1956 [but not for Peace]. Until the 21st century, researchers mostly studied the effects of this hormone in nonhuman mammals, concluding that it facilitates labor and lactation. From whence, it was only a short anthropomorphic leap of logic, to conclude that OT acts like a maternal love potion, cementing the mother-offspring bond, at least until the young can fend for themselves. Having witnessed at an impressionable age my cousin’s pet mouse giving birth and then eating all of her young that we were not quick enough to rescue from her, I can tell you [as they say Up North in England], “It don’t necessarily follow.” Apparently, the amount of OT sufficient to induce labor & delivery is not always sufficient to guarantee maternal feelings [let’s say, behavior] towards her progeny. Anyone who raises livestock is aware of this, and has one or two “foster mothers” on hand, to “adopt” the rejected newborns. Those who work in neonatology or “foundling” rescue have seen this occasional failure of Oxytocin to vincit omnia in humans, as well.

Nevertheless, OT has lately been hailed by [mostly European] neuroscientists, as the “Love Hormone” for shy, fearful and/or autistic humans, now available as a nasal spray [talk about “Gets Right Up Your Nose”], at least for research purposes. In April ’05, Kosfeld et al. [from Zurich] proclaimed “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” In December ’05, Kirsch et al. [from Germany] reported “Oxytocin modulates neural circuity for social cognition and fear in humans.” By April ’10 Hurlemann et al. [from Bonn], in the article “Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans,” began, “OT is becoming increasingly established as a prosocial neuropeptide in humans with therapeutic potential in treatment of social, cognitive, and mood disorders.”

Oh, yeah? Show me the data. More to the point, show me the methodology. The slender bough from which all these “findings” hang, is the Multifaceted Empathy Test: a self-administered computer instrument, on which a subject first categorizes a series of photos [happy, sad, or angry], and then rates [0 to 10] “how much you feel for the person in the photo.” With and without OT up your nose, double-blind. Seriously? Why not just ask subjects to rate Facebook pictures? “Would you ‘friend’ this person? Now, with OT up your nose, would you?”

Did I mention that trans-nasal Oxytocin is chemically similar to MDMA? [Google it.]

Let’s hear it for the Dutch [Carsten De Dreu et al., June ’10, Amsterdam], who used a slightly more real-world scenario, involving a game of strategy, allocating wealth [10 Euros] to Self, the In-Group, and/or the Out-Group. [Not unlike the contentious bail-out of debtor EU nations by (ahem) the Germans, nicht wahr?] They use wonderfully evocative terms, like “in-group love” and “out-group hate.” Here’s what they found: “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans.” Absent OT up their nose(s) the (male) subjects mostly opted to keep their Euros to themselves. With a snootfull, though, they would sacrifice their Euros for the good of their in-group, especially if it “hurt” the out-group. Conclusion: OT “drives a ‘tend and defend’ response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive aggression (including protectionism and preemptive strike) against perceived out-group threat.”

Sound familiar? Sounds like Circle-the-Wagons, Jets-versus-Sharks, Small Love [not Big Love] to me. Next time, a discussion of how OT gets into the bloodstream [other than via a nasal spray].

Hint: Consider the old English expression, “to curry favour.”

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Does a hangdog expression betoken guilt?


Funny, how old words morph their meanings, innit? Take “hangdog,” which has been around since the 1670s, adjective & noun, originally meaning “contemptible & sneaking.” [Think Dickens’ passive-aggressive character, Uriah Heep, always presenting himself as ‘umble, while surreptitiously scheming to bring the high & mighty down.] By 2010, The American Heritage Dictionary defined a “hangdog expression” as “looking shamefaced & guilty.”

Consider the word “guilt,” even. As late as 1934, the only definition in The Concise Oxford Dictionary was “culpability.” Guilt wasn’t a psychological construct. None of your subjective, self-referential, conceptual feeling [as in “survivor guilt,” or “Jewish/Catholic/Protestant guilt”]. Just the objective fact of the case: “How does the defendant plead? Guilty or not guilty?” Also, “How does the jury find: guilty or not guilty?” [Their verdict is a subjective opinion, but it’s presumably based on the objective, admissible facts presented.] The notion of remorse doesn’t come into it, until the sentencing phase of the trial, if the erstwhile “not guilty” defendant is found “guilty” [at which point, his lawyer advises him to show how sorry he is by adopting a hangdog expression].

So, here we are in the 21st century, with the burgeoning field of Social Neuroscience and its ugly Iron Maiden, the fMRI [colloquially referred to in the media as The Brain Scanner], claiming to have located the Seat of Guilt in the Brain, no less! Point of order, would that be the seat of objective or subjective guilt, they’ve found? Let me not bore you with my observations on the flawed research designs of such studies [like, having a subject read or watch scenarios of other people behaving badly, in order to light up the Guilt center(s) in the subject’s own brain… What? When I watch Othello snuff Desdamona, I’m the one who feels/is guilty?]. Let me instead quote the brain-imager, Dr. Gregory Miller of the University of Illinois: “Functions do not have a location. Decisions, feelings, perceptions, delusions, memories do not have a spatial location. We image brain events… We do not image, and cannot localise in space, psychological constructs.”

At most, then, the fMRI is currently no better than the 20th Century polygraph at measuring physiological changes correlated with limbic system changes correlated with psychological constructs, such as fear and humiliation. From which I know, having treated several Intelligence Officers who had failed the annual polygraph test because of an exaggerated sense of guilt, over sexual peccadillos, rather than because they were actually guilty of breaching national security. So dedicated were they to their Intel work [from which they were sidelined by the failed polygraph test], that some of them would ask [semi-jokingly], “Is there such a thing as a ‘guilt-ectomy’ that I could have, just so I could pass the polygraph?” Just give those brain-imagers a chance, and they’ll be in there before you can say “knife.”

Back to the title question, addressed on a pet behavior blog, in the form, “Do dogs feel guilt?” Their answer was, “No. Guilt is an abstract concept. Dogs express fear & submission, in response to the owner’s anger, which they sense through body odor, glaring eyes, stance and tone of voice.” The dog “looks hangdog” to avoid or lessen the Alpha Dog’s punishment [just like a defendant who has been “found guilty”].

The wolf looks “sheepish” in the presence of a more powerful wolf. It has correctly read the power subtext of the situation. It endures the humiliation of acting submissive, to avoid the pain & suffering of being put in its place [which might be completely beyond the pale, where chances of survival are slim] by the Big Dog. That’s more useful than guilt. That’s Social Intelligence.

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