Oxytocin has been called the “cuddle chemical” and the “love hormone” — the glue that bonds parents to children and lovers to each other. Given that levels of oxytocin surge during orgasm and remain high in new parents — the better to help people form attachments and positive social memories of others — the chemical sounds like the perfect high, some combination of ecstasy and heroin that envelops you in the warm, fuzzy comfort of home and the joy of sex.
But, oddly, in most circumstances when the hormone is administered artificially to people, they can’t distinguish between oxytocin and placebo. And now a new study finds that rather than being a “love drug,” oxytocin is more like a social memory enhancer — linking experiences with people not just to pleasure, but to pain if that’s what early relationships involve. (More on Time.com: Forget Pain Pills, Fall in Love Instead)
For the new study, researchers wanted to see whether giving oxytocin to men would cast a positive glow over memories of their mothers, even when the actual memories of mom may not have been so great.
“What we set out to do in this particular study is to look at the role of oxytocin in attachment representations that we form as infants,” says Jennifer Bartz, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “These early life attachments are believed to affect our relationships throughout life.” (More on TIME.com: ‘Cuddle Chemical’ May Help Alleviate Autism)
Thirty-one men ranging in age from 19 to 45 were recruited and given initial psychological tests to measure their childhood attachment to their mothers. The tests determined whether they were anxious about their connection to Mom, avoidant in their dealings with her or secure in the relationship. People who remembered their mothers as having been warm, soothing and responsive tended to be securely attached; those who saw Mom as having been unresponsive, abusive or unreliable were more likely to have attachment anxiety or avoidance.
These early childhood experiences with relationships tend to color future adult relationships — avoidance and anxiety often produce problems with romance and friendships.
The researchers alternately gave the men were oxytocin or placebo, in tests three to five weeks apart. When asked to remember their relationships with their mothers again, men who were securely attached tended to remember Mom as warmer and more loving when given oxytocin over placebo. But those with attachment anxiety remembered their mothers as less caring and more distant when given oxytocin, compared with placebo. (More on Time.com: 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives)
“If oxytocin were really a ‘love drug,’ if you give it to people, they should feel in love and attracted to anyone. No matter who they are, it should increase prosocial feelings. Our research dispels that myth,” says Jamil Zaki, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral student at Harvard.
Bartz agrees that the new data suggest that oxytocin is not an “attachment panacea.” It’s effect on social interactions and expectations are not ubiquitously positive, as previously thought. “Rather, its effect really depends on who its given to. We found that for participants who were less anxious and more securely attached, it boosted or enhanced or reminded them of positive memories of maternal care and closeness. But for those who were more anxiously attached, it actually exacerbated those [negative] memories,” says Bartz. (More on Time.com: Can an iPhone App Save Your Marriage?)
The new research suggests a more cautious approach to using oxytocin as treatment, says Bartz. In some trials with people with autism, the hormone has been shown to enhance trust and social engagement. “It happens to be helpful in some cases and can improve the ability to process social cues, but you do need to carefully consider the individual and the context,” she says.
Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University and a pioneer in research on oxytocin and emotion, offers an alternative interpretation of the results. Rather than biasing memory in favor of one’s actual experience of maternal care, Panksepp suggests that oxytocin simply increases people’s confidence when they’re exposed to it, by acting on lower brain regions and processes involved in basic emotion rather than emotional or verbal memory.
“If these insecurely attached people have [chronic] low levels of anxiety and all of a sudden they feel more confident [under the influence of oxytocin], now they are able to say exactly the way they feel about their mothers as opposed to having mixed emotions,” says Panksepp. (More on Time.com: Debunking the Headlines: Falling in Love in 0.2 Sec.? We Don’t Think So)
Although the study did not find any changes in mood or self-esteem when participants received oxytocin, it did not measure confidence directly.
Whatever the case, oxytocin continues to be a fascinating substance, and understanding its effect will almost certainly lead to a better understanding of our connections to each other and of the disorders that disrupt these vital relationships. (Later this week, I’ll have a post on additional oxytocin research by Bartz, Zaki and colleagues, looking at studies related to autism and borderline personality disorder.)
The new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the Beatrice and Samuel A. Seaver Foundation.
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