There’s More to Oxytocin Than We Knew

According to some new research, there’s more to oxytocin than we previously knew. Often called the “love hormone,” oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that is released during breastfeeding and orgasm. It enhances mother-child bonding, triggers uterine contractions and has been shown to increase bonding between adults, increase trust, and decrease fear.

But as is often the case, it seems to be a lot more complex than that. In one study, research participants played a game against a computer while under the impression that they were competing with a person. The game was rigged to trigger feelings of envy when someone lost and gloating when they won. And the people who inhaled an oxytocin spray reported more intense feelings than the control group. By comparison, the participants whose games came out as ties reported no effect, regardless of whether they inhaled oxytocin or the control spray.

In another study, men who felt more anxious about their mothers reported that their negative feelings increased when they were exposed to oxytocin, while men who had more secure relationships with their mothers had increased feelings of maternal security and closeness under the influence of oxytocin.

There’s also a cultural aspect to how oxytocin works. It turns out that the chemical has to dock at a particular receptor called OXTR. Americans who carry a particular version of OXTR are more likely to turn to friends for support in difficult times. However, Koreans tend to consider it less socially acceptable to ask friends for support and those who have the same version of OXTR are even less likely to turn to them.

What this seems to indicate is that oxytocin increases the intensity of whatever emotions are there. If you’re in a bonding state, it increases it. If you’re in a state of envy, it amplifies it. That’s a lot more complex than the “oxytocin = bonding” message that we’ve been hearing. It’s even been used to try to explain sex addiction and while I have no doubt that it’s one of the big influences on our sexual behaviors, it seems clear to me there’s more going on than we knew.

All of this makes me think that anytime someone says that the brain works like this or that sex works like that, they’re probably oversimplifying the situation. Maybe they have an agenda to support. Maybe they don’t know enough about the research. And maybe it’s because the research isn’t complete yet. To quote K from Men in Black,

Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

It’s a sentiment that I think is worth remembering anytime we hear someone say that they know how sex or the brain works.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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