Derived from the Greek words meaning ‘quick birth’, Oxytocin is a hormone with a curious function, found only in the brains of mammals. Often considered as ‘the love hormone’, it is perhaps best known for its effects on emotional attachment, empathy and sexual reproduction.
The hormone is proven to evoke feelings including contentment, calmness and security, whilst studies have also found evidence that Oxytocin has a part to play in the facilitation of human bonding. Besides being released during hugging, touching or at the point of orgasm, it’s also central to integral functions of social recognition and the formation of trust in humans.
Simplifying such vastly complicated human emotions and social constructs to the level of a single hormone has long been discussed across a number of studies. Oxytocin’s role is hugely complex in human and animal interactions. The functions of the hormone may also be extended to limiting emotions such as fear, where it has been used to help those who suffer from social anxieties. Artificially administered oxytocin has been reported to alleviate stress and reduce fear, possibly by inhibiting the amygdala, a region of the brain thought to be responsible for fear responses. It has even been suggested that sociopathy and psychopathy are linked to the inability to create and absorb Oxytocin. One study found that sufferers of autism lack the ability to secrete the hormone due to the genomic deletion of the gene containing the Oxytocin receptor gene, OXTR.
Despite its multiple purposes across various mammalian species, discrepancies on its effects between genders also exist: the hormone is thought to trigger maternal behaviours in females and is used in pregnancy — particularly during labour — to facilitate birth and breastfeeding. In prairie voles, Oxytocin is necessary in the female brain during sexual activity to form a need to bond with her partner, whilst the male produces Vasopressin, a hormonal counterpart, which has a similar effect in inducing the need for a monogamous relationship with the mate.
When it comes to the argument of nature versus nurture and whether humans have been able to evolve from years of biological programming, studies in Oxytocin have continued to challenge the romanticisation of the concept of ‘love’. It has been suggested that Oxytocin has been found to be higher in concentration in plasma within people who claim to have been ‘falling in love’. Humans have even attempted to replicate such effects, through the use of artificial drugs such as MDMA (Ecstasy), which may increase feelings of love, empathy and connection to others by stimulating Oxytocin activity via activation of serotonin 5-HT1Areceptors. Synthetic Oxytocin is also sold as medication under the names Pitocin and Syntocinon, used to induce and support labour, as well as to increase milk production.
A deeper observation of the effects of Oxytocin reveal it is more complex than a simple ‘feel-good’ chemical. Whilst being known to induce altruism and generosity in humans, studies show that it’s not necessarily promoting all-round positive behaviour towards the fellow man and that it may contribute to a defense and survival mechanism that combines trust and empathy only within a chosen ‘group’. This links back to tribal behaviours where one is taught to fear and reject outsiders of the ‘in’ group or the ‘clan’ and feelings of trust are reserved for the familiar. The darker side of Oxytocin may reveal a still-existent cause on a basic primate level in which ethnocentrism continues today.
Perhaps oxytocin isn’t the glorified, fix-all chemical we envisaged.