All you need is … oxytocin
Many things make human beings unique: our thumbs, the complexity of our communication skills (excluding certain ex boyfriends!), and our fully developed moral sentiments. Can you imagine the even greater havoc our species could wreak if most of us didn’t have a heart? Indeed, many scientists are obsessed with understanding our morality including what chemicals in the brain are associated with it.
One such scientist is neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who describes in this presentation how after 10 years of lab experiments he’s able to say that the moral molecule is … ta-dah … oxytocin, an extract from the human posterior pituitary gland. How does he know?
First he had to find a way of measuring morality, no easy feat. “So I started smaller,” he says. That is, he studied one single virtue, trustworthiness, by asking volunteers to engage in monetary games to elicit trust and then testing their blood for oxytocin.
Even though this study confirmed a relationship between the two, Zak and his team still couldn’t be sure oxytocin caused trustworthiness until they did some more studies including those that ruled out the effect of other molecules interacting with oxytocin. The question then was although oxytocin might be the trust molecule was it the moral molecule?
More studies followed using an oxytocin inhaler, and these showed that the higher a person’s oxytocin levels, the more generous they tended to be. Why? Because when oxytocin floods the brain, it feels good. Specifically, it predicts our feelings of empathy (confirmed by yet more studies), which is what connects us to other people, spurs us to help them and … ergo, defines us as moral creatures.
The implications of such a finding are immense, namely that the antidote to our stinginess, and selfishness might be as simple as a generous squirt of oxytocin nasal spray! Or if you don’t like putting things up your nose, activities such as massage, dancing, even praying and meditating, are proven non-pharmacological ways to get your oxytocin hit.
The bad news is you can quite easily inhibit its beneficial effects, for example, by feeling anxious. Rings true. Who out there can honestly say they’re a paragon of kindness and generosity when they’re super stressed?
So what’s Zak’s take home message to those of us wanting to be better people? Hug each other, the easiest way to trigger the brain’s release of this feel good (and do good chemical). “Eight hugs a day,’ prescribes Dr Love (Zak’s nickname). That way, we’ll all be a lot happier and the world will be a better place.