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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Filed under murky research, pro bono publico, sharks and jets

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