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"Love Hormone" Oxytocin Can Conjure Up Negative Feelings, Too

oxytocin, love hormone

Oxytocin intensifies our feelings, both positive and negative.

We all know what oxytocin is.  It’s the “love hormone” that is released during birth and breastfeeding that helps a mother and child bond.  It’s a hormone released during orgasm.  It gives us positive feelings about one another.  Or is it?  A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 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.”

TIME magazine reports that Dr. Jennifer Bartz, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and her colleagues tested 31 men ranging in age from 19 to 45 to measure their childhood attachment to their mothers.  The researchers gave all of the men both oxytocin and a placebo, and they discovered that in response to the oxytocin, “men who were securely attached tended to remember Mom as warmer and more loving” and “those with attachment anxiety remembered their mothers as less caring and more distant when given oxytocin.”  In other words, the oxytocin didn’t have the type of affect researchers supposed the “love hormone” would.  Oxytocin is not “an all-purpose attachment panacea,” Bartz wrote, but rather a hormone that, when released, intensifies your feelings about other people, either positive or negative, based on your interactions with them.

Jamil Zaki, a co-author of the study from Harvard, says oxytocin is no Love Potion No. 9.  “If oxytocin were really a ‘love drug,’ if you give it to people, they should feel in love and attracted to anyone,” Zaki says.  “No matter who they are, it should increase prosocial feelings.  Our research dispels that myth.”

Of course, the caveat to this research is that the effects of oxytocin on memory and emotions were only tested on men.  It would be interesting to find out if women have a different response to the hormone.  In the meantime, these findings should have an important impact on using oxytocin to treat autism.  TIME says, “In some trials with people with autism, the hormone has been shown to enhance trust and social engagement.”  But according to Bartz, “These data suggest caution when hypothesising about the effects of oxytocin for different individuals or as an intervention.”

The Telegraph reports, “Earlier this year scientists unveiled a synthetic oxytocin spray that they said made men more affectionate and empathetic.  Sprays are available to buy on the internet.”  I guess we can’t necessarily rely on oxytocin spray to make men want to cuddle, ladies.  If you’re looking for a love potion, there’s always pheromone perfume or cologne.  I don’t know if the pheromones in the perfume I wear work or not, but people always tell me I smell great when I have it on – and that’s one way to create positive attachment!

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