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The Cuddle Hormone: Lesser-Known Effects of Oxytocin

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.
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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. 

The good: it helps us read people better.
Many oxytocin receptors are located in the brain’s amygdala. When you see someone frown and you understand that he or she’s upset, that’s because the amygdala’s taken a physical cue (the frown) and correctly translated it into emotional meaning. Because of this, oxytocin is partly responsible for our ability to pick up on others’ emotions. People who have trouble doing this, such as autistics or those with Asperger’s, are thought to have unusually low oxytocin levels. 

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. The same positive effect has been demonstrated among healthy participants, too. A 2007 study published in Biological Psychology showed that thirty males asked to pinpoint emotional states by analyzing the eye region did better when their oxytocin levels were increased. 

The bad: it increases jealousy and schadenfreude.
Oxytocin encourages warm and cuddly feelings, but it also helps prompt the not-so-nice ones. At the University of Haifa in Israel, researchers rounded up fifty-six people (who were given oxytocin or a placebo) and asked them to play a game with a fictitious opponent. One of three outcomes occurred: the faux player won more money, lost more money, or came out equal to the volunteers. Those given oxytocin reported higher levels of envy and gloating (schadenfreude) when the first two happened, but not when the outcome was the same. 

The good: 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. 

That wasn’t the only time oxytocin has been shown to increase generosity. In 2007, a joint study between Claremont Graduate University, Georgia State University, Loma Linda University Medical Center, UCLA, and Chapman University reached a similar conclusion. Their volunteers were given one chance to split money with a stranger; the stranger had to accept the offer in order for them to win. Those who were given oxytocin were 80 percent more generous with the money division than their placebo counterparts were. 

Now that we know what oxytocin does, how do we get more of it?
Other than physical touch, there are a variety of ways to bring about an oxytocin surge. Synthetic oxytocin, such as via nasal spray, is available on the market, but natural methods are possible as well. Dr. Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, author of The Oxytocin Factor, believes that simple eye contact and meaningful interactions can increase the hormone’s presence. In an interview with Time on the subject, Paul Zak, professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University, suggested that petting dogs, sharing a meal with a friend, and doing yoga can facilitate oxytocin production. A 2005 study at the University of Essex concluded that the participants’ notably higher self-esteem after exercising outdoors came from increased oxytocin and endorphins, so exercise might trigger a more substantial release, too. Relaxing music can also help; a 2009 study at Orebo University showed that the day after heart surgery, patients who listened to music had higher oxytocin levels. 

Even if oxytocin does have a couple of negative effects, its positive ones more than make up for them. 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. 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? That’s scientific advice I can get behind.

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