The Science Behind Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a naturally occuring hormone, associated primarily with pregnant and child rearing mothers. Originally known as being associated with the production of breast milk in new mothers, the now famous powers of oxtocin to create social and loving bonds soon became widely publicized after a number of scientific studies. Research gradually painted a picture of oxytocin not only playing a role in the boding between a mother and her new child, but also wider social relationships between families, lovers, and even strangers.

One of the very first research papers that established the link between oxytocin and pair bonding was a 2003 study into rodents published in the prestigious Nature magazine in September 2004. The study demonstrated the role that the hormone played in establishing monogomous relationships among the rodents and speculated that oxytocin could play a similar role in human pair bonding. Further studies appear to have backed this idea up, as well as many other social roles for the ‘love hormone’ (also known as the ‘trust hormone’). ‘Oxytocin therapy’ is now even being explored as a possible remedy for marriage problems.

Psychology Today has a concise and informative outline of what oxytocin is :

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.

For all its positivity, however, oxytocin has a dark side. Or, more accurately, it plays a more complex role in human behavior than is commonly thought. As a facilitator of bonding among those who share similar characteristics, the hormone fosters distinctions between in-group and out-group members, and sets in motion favoritism toward in-group members and prejudice against those in out-groups. Ongoing research on the hormone is a potent reminder of the complexity of biological and psychological systems.