by Josh Richardson
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that acts on the limbic system, the brain’s emotional centre, promoting feelings of contentment, reducing anxiety and stress. It has been dubbed the “love hormone” for its role promoting social bonding, altruism and more. Now new research from Duke University suggests the hormone may also support spirituality.
Oxytocin, originally known to stimulate labor and milk ejection, appears to play an important role stress and pain. It can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels. It increases pain thresholds, exerts an anxiolytic-like effect and stimulates various types of positive social interaction. In addition, it promotes growth and healing. Repeated exposure to oxytocin causes long-lasting effects by influencing the activity of other transmitter systems, a pattern which makes oxytocin potentially clinically relevant.
Most likely, oxytocin can also be released by stimulation of other senses such as olfaction, as well as by certain types of sound and light. In addition, purely psychological mechanisms may trigger the release of oxytocin. This means that positive interaction involving touch and psychological support may be health-promoting. The social interaction of daily life, as well as a positive environment, continuously activate this system. In addition, various types of psychotherapy involving transfer of support, warmth and empathy are likely to induce similar effects, which thus contribute to the positive effects of these kinds of therapies.
When we hug someone, oxytocin is released into our bodies by our pituitary gland, lowering both our heart rates and our cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
In a study, men reported a greater sense of spirituality shortly after taking oxytocin and a week later. Participants who took oxytocin also experienced more positive emotions during meditation, said lead author Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke. The results published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience provide the first experimental evidence that spirituality, endorsed by millions worldwide, appears to be supported by oxytocin.
Oxytocin does seem to play an important role in bonding. This includes sexual pairings, but also mother-infant interactions, as well as more general sociability and acquiring social skills. Oxytocin plays a fascinating role in some of the fundamental behaviors of many species, including humans. Whilst it may contribute to the essential biological functions of sexual selection or maternal behavior, it’s not a complete explanation. You may be encouraged to fall in love by your oxytocin, but whom you choose depends on something else.
“Spirituality and meditation have each been linked to health and well-being in previous research,” Van Cappellen said. “We were interested in understanding biological factors that may enhance those spiritual experiences.
“Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs.”
Study participants were all male, and the findings apply only to men, said Van Cappellen, associate director of the Interdisciplinary and Behavioral Research Center at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute. In general, oxytocin operates somewhat differently in men and women, Van Cappellen added. Oxytocin’s effects on women’s spirituality still needs to be investigated.
The results appears online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Oxytocin occurs naturally in the body. Produced by the hypothalamus, it acts as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter, affecting many regions of the brain. It is stimulated during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. Recent research has highlighted oxytocin’s role in promoting empathy, trust, social bonding and altruism.
To test how oxytocin might influence spirituality, researchers administered the hormone to one group and a placebo to another. Those who received oxytocin were more likely to say afterwards that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has meaning and purpose. This was true after taking into account whether the participant reported belonging to an organized religion or not.
Participants who received oxytocin were also more inclined to view themselves as interconnected with other people and living things, giving higher ratings to statements such as “All life is interconnected” and “There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people.”
Study subjects also participated in a guided meditation. Those who received oxytocin reported experiencing more positive emotions during meditation, including awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, love and serenity.
Oxytocin did not affect all participants equally, though. Its effect on spirituality was stronger among people with a particular variant of the CD38 gene, a gene that regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain.
Van Cappellen cautioned that the findings should not be over-generalized. First of all, there are many definitions of spirituality, she noted.
“Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” Van Cappellen said. “However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”
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