Science, Now + Beyond

6 facts about oxytocin you should know before calling it “the love hormone”

Oxytocin has been the hot research button in psychology, but cautious optimism is never a bad thing.

In layman’s terms, oxytocin can be defined as a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm.

In your brain, the hypothalamus produces the hormone oxytocin.  Then, posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain secretes this hormone into the bloodstream. What occurs after is some awesome human behavior and physiology. Biologically, researchers have described oxytocin as a key hormone in assisting women with the birthing process.  Its role in the birthing process occurs in two ways: through contractions in the uterus during childbirth and the necessary lactation for breastfeeding. In men, oxytocin helps sperm movement and testosterone production in the testes.

Outside of helping women mother their babies and men get their swimmers going to make babies, this hormone has been the most popular for its role in different parts of human behavior – good and bad.  Here is how.

1.  It may be wrongly called the “love hormone”, but it sure helps out in the sexual bonding

when harry met sally GIF
[Image Description: A gif of Meg Ryan from “When Harry Met Sally” imitating an orgasm in public.] via Giphy

More literature suggests that oxytocin’s popularity as the “love hormone” may be overstated, but that does not mean it plays no role in sex.

You see that unforgettable orgasm. Those feeling of closeness after sex do not just come from thin air. Sure, one hormone cannot be the reason those “feels” of yours are coming along, but there is no doubt that it triggers your desire to linger and cuddle.

2. You  trust people and feel a deep affinity for them

i have a real feeling for you GIF by Warner Archive
[Image Description: A gif of a man saying “I have a real feeling for you” with a stern face] via Giphy

Aside from romantic love, feeling close to people or even your animals is associated with this hormone.  Oxytocin certainly presents itself when you have these feelings, however, the concept of giving people an extra dose of oxytocin is questionable. Some scientists initially thought that even having an extra whiff of this hormone through a nasal spray would help increase trust (and it even led to a 2011 Ted Talk by Paul Zak), but that is now questionable.

3.  It contributes to a mom loving her baby to pieces

polar bear snuggles GIF
[Image Description: A gif of a mother polar bear and her cub climbing on top of her.] via Giphy

No matter how many times that child poops or screams its lungs out, the release of oxytocin in mother-child bonding is strong. It is released when she breastfeeds her baby. No, literally, oxytocin helps eject the breastmilk, otherwise known as the let-down reflex.

That kind of bonding has ensured our survival in this world and continues to do so.

4.  It can bring back emotional memories – beautiful and extremely painful

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[Image Description: A gif of Professor Farnsworth recalling a bad memory.] via Giphy

That fond experience of bonding with your mother or best friend can remain with you forever.

It creates a sense of well-being, and as traditionally cited stress relief. Thanks, oxytocin. However, at the same time, oxytocin can intensify some negative memories, such as being bullied by a child or even abuse.  That intensity of the memory can trigger your stress levels and anxiety in future situations. Talk about a complicated hormone!

5. Doses of it MAY be able to help with autism in children

original video tech GIF
[Image Description: A gif of a woman with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), explaining her struggles with expressing emotions.] via Giphy

The keyword here is may. Because autistic children struggle with social skills, such as empathy and trust, scientists may think oxytocin can help out. Many trials assessing if nasally puffing oxytocin may help autistic children in their social skills have been underway – both successful and unsuccessful.  However, questions remain around a placebo effect or science code for people believing that a treatment is working rather than it actually working. Others remain around its effectiveness over the long-term.

6.  It may make favoritism and group divisions worse

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[Image Description: A gif of the rugrats Tommy, Chucky, and Phil and Lil shaking their heads to the song “Clique”.] via Giphy

This one is an especially dark side of oxytocin.

While the drug can promote love and trust, there emerges a new issue: love and trust of who?  The answer potentially lies within an in-group. That in-group could be those who look or thinks similar to us.  In other words, a very ugly aspect of oxytocin emerges: it can contribute to ethnocentricism and exclusion of “out-groups”.  Eek.

While all of us should probably not be ready to start sniffing oxytocin after a quick run to our corner pharmacy, I am all for continued research of this hormone. Its results could certainly be promising, for example, with Autism. However,  as with any artificial recreation of a hormone, we cannot forget there are unintended consequences.