Everyone has heard of oxytocin, right?
The hormone known as the “cuddle chemical”, released from the pituitary gland after being made in the hypothalamus, has gotten a lot of really interesting press lately: since the 1970s, in fact, the scientific world has been exploding with fascination with this particular hormone. As it turns out, however, in labeling oxytocin the “cuddle chemical” and writing it off as an agent that promotes bonding, we made some mistakes. Oxytocin, as it turns out, is far more complex than most of us think.
Oxytocin is most famously known for its role in childbirth and maternal bonding, the chemical which signals milk to release from the mother for the child to be fed, causes contractions during labor, and makes new moms go all googly-eyed over their offspring. As we study it further, however, we find that it has a much more complicated role in human social bonding than we’ve ever known.
Oxytocin, as it turns out, creates favoritism among social groups.
If, for example, you’re a German, and you’re administered a dose of oxytocin, and then find yourself in a group of Arabic people, you may feel disconnected and lost, and when you do find another German or person more similar to yourself, bonding with them socially whether they’re people you really like or not. So one of the things that oxytocin has now been noted for is social cognition. Unfortunately, that also means that it can potentially lead to discrimination.
So one of the things that oxytocin has now been noted for is social cognition. Unfortunately, that also means that it can potentially lead to discrimination.
As a hormone that might impact social cognition, scientists who study and doctors who treat autism have been chomping at the bit to study its effects on people who are on the autism spectrum. They’ve been a bit too eager, however, one might say, as the limited testing that has been done on autistic people with oxytocin has been somewhat sloppy and a bit too overzealous to produce the desired results. As Dr. Anagnostou, a clinical psychologist involved with some of the initial trials,
As Dr. Anagnostou, a clinical psychologist involved with some of the initial trials, indicates, “to be honest, if we had done it properly, we wouldn’t have done it the way we did. It went a little bit too fast.” Because of this, the outcomes of the trials have been muddled in their results.
So oxytocin isn’t necessarily just “the cuddle chemical” that we all thought it to be.
Powerful hormonal neurotransmitters, however, should never be underestimated in terms of scope and complexity. As we continue to study this amazing hormone, the complexities to come will likely continue to astound us.