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February 2010
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Your RDA for Love?

If we evolved with emotions, they must have some purpose, right? If so, do we actually need to experience emotions, in the same way that we need to ingest vitamins?

That's the premise of an online discussion hosted by the World Mind Institute, led by Imam Saqib of the National Institute of Psychology at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan, Irina Higgins of the Oxford University Foundation for Theoretical Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence, and Melissa Mendoza of the University of La Verne.

The premise:

There may be research which suggests that for ideal health a person's glands should emit so much adrenaline, so much cortisol, and so much oxytocin on a daily basis. This could translate into a requirement that one would be well served to have several kinds of experiences every day which require these hormones. They might include the feel-good emotions that everyone craves; but they might also include less popular ones like aggression, fear, and anxiety.

This seems like kind of a no-brainer to me; I think these folks are forgetting that these same "emotion" hormones are also critical to all sorts of biological functions. For example, a surge of cortisol in the morning helps us transition from sleeping to waking. Oxytocin helps regulate the autonomic nervous system and is involved in satiation after eating.

Join the discussion here.

Massage Helps the Bereaved

Weekly massages for eight weeks after the loss of a loved one consoled the bereaved and helped them recover from their grief.

As reported in The Medical News, 18 people of varying ages who had lost a relative to cancer were offered massage. All but one reported that they received considerable benefits.

The Karolinska Institute is the Swedish research facility where Kerstin Uvnas Moberg did her pioneering research on oxytocin.

This study adds to the small bit of research validating the idea that massage causes the release of oxytocin in the recipient. However, we should note that the study does not seem to have actually measured levels of oxytocin in the participants' blood.  But the researchers have the very informed opinion that this is the case:

"Soft tissue massage is gentle, but firm" explains Dr [Berit S.] Cronfalk [from the Stockholms Sjukhem Foundation], who carried out the research with colleagues from the Karolinska Institutet. "This activates touch receptors which then release oxytocin, a hormone known for its positive effects on well-being and relaxation.

Although you'll see it all over the internet, I've only seen one scientific study measuring the oxytocin levels of massage recipients. Still, it makes intuitive sense; and the emotion study participants felt is certainly that oxytocin feeling.

"All the people we spoke to used the word consolation" says Dr Cronfalk.

Mothering More Essential than Food

A study of African families found that children who lost their mothers before age 15 tended to be shorter, left school sooner and were poorer over the course of their lives, an effect that was not correlated with losing a father.

Stefan Dercon, from the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, said economic aid organizations typically target families who have lost the family breadwinner, typically the father.  But the mother's role in making sure children are fed and cared for may be even more important.

Why Fathers Should Be There for Birth

The New York Times has a really inspiring guest post from Josh Tyson, describing his feelings during the birth of his two children. What struck me was how the experience of watching his wife in natural childbirth deepened his perception of her as a woman.

He writes,

I am a very proud and humbled husband, looking forward to tapping my wife’s immense fire and might as we continue along the divinely beleaguered path of parenthood.

Michael Odent, the French natural birth advocate, has been warning that men should stay out of the delivery room, because they get anxious and try to fix things. This, he explains, increases the woman's stress level and reduces her production of oxytocin, which is necessary to produce strong enough contractions to push the baby out.

This is based on his extensive experience in the delivery room, and I"m sure what he says is true.

Still, the Tysons' story shows how letting fathers share this experience can profoundly deepen not only their bond to the baby but also to the mothers of their children.

Sex and Oxytocin on Bliss Radio

I'm joining Chrystal Bougeron on Bliss Radio this coming Wednesday, March 17.

I mostly focus on the bonding aspects of oxytocin. Chrystal's show is produced by, an online store for sex toys and simliar goodies, so we're going to turn up the heat on oyxtocin's role in sex and orgasm -- and how that seems to tie sex to bonding.

We'll also talk about touch: why it feels so good; why, in fact, we need it to survive.

You can tune in live over the internet, or listen to the show later on iTunes. This should be fun!

What Breast Milk Teaches Babies

Baby monkey get signals from their mothers' breast milk that help shape both their behavior and their temperament, a new study found.

Katie Hinde led a team from UC Davis and The Smithsonian Institution that looked at variations in the breast milk of rhesus macaque monkeys living in the outdoor enclosure at the California National Primate Research Center.

The experiment was based on the fact that mothers who are heavier and have raised previous offspring tend to produce more nutritious breast milk than new mothers or mothers who weigh less. This is true even though these monkey are all fed the same diet and live together in the same environment.

After analyzing the mothers' breast milk, the researchers looked at the behavior of their babies when they were three or four months old. According to Science Daily:

At 3 to 4 months old, each infant was temporarily separated from its mother and assessed according to its behavior and temperament. The study found that infants whose mothers had higher levels of milk energy soon after their birth coped more effectively (moved around more, explored more, ate and drank) and showed greater confidence (were more playful, curious and active). Infants whose mothers had lower milk energy had lower activity levels and were less confident when separated from their mother. Mothers and infants were reunited immediately after the experiment.

The scientists think that cues from the breast milk may discourage behaviors that are risky in times of scarcity. For example, if food is scarce, a young monkey shouldn't waste energy playing around.

By the way, there's pleny of reason to assume this would hold true for humans. In fact, rhesus monkeys are often used in research on human diseases and drugs. 

We know that a human baby's brain development is strongly influenced by experiences after birth. It certainly seems like nutritional cues could play a bigger role than we normally think.

Signs He's "the One" for You

Shine has a fluffy but smart post on figuring out if Mr. Now is Mr. Right.

They all come down to trust: Do your family and friends like him? Does he treat you right?

Put like that, it seems so simple. So, how come we so often get into relationships with people that our friends warn us about, who are mean to us, who can't give us what we want? (And this goes for you guys, too.)

All the positive attributes in the article come down to the beneficial, bonding effects of oxytocin. The gist is, if your relationship is based on oxytocin, it's right.

The snag is, love relationships usually start with a heavy hit of lust and romantic desire, feelings fueled not by oxytocin but by dopamine and noradrenaline. It's a rush that blinds us to the quality of the bond -- or to the lack of a bond at all beyond the sex and romance.

If your'e dating, print out the article and keep it by your phone.

Autism an Imprinting Error?

Do newborns imprint on the mother, just like baby ducklings attach themselves to the first thing they see, whether that's the mother duck or Konrad Lorenz? Could autism begin when the newborn fails to imprint?

I was ready to dismiss this Psychology Today blog post by Bill Ahearn out of hand. But it's too well-reasoned -- and also, Ahearn is director of research at the New England Center for Children, a private nonprofit educational facility for children with autism.

Ahearn is not arguing that newborn humans have the same, simple kind of imprinting mechanism that baby birds do. But he does argue that a lack of response to the initial "social" cues of the mother's smell and nipple may interfere with the normal brain and physiological development that takes place after birth.

He writes,

... one of the earliest indicators that an ASD may be present is atypicality, at birth, in primitive reflexes, like rooting and sucking. As I mentioned above, imprinting establishes the significance of a cue and if that cue is not imprinted to, it does not have this same significance. Is it possible that something is going wrong in social learning that is akin to an imprinting error? Well, one thing we know about individuals with autism relative to people without it is that social cues do not hold the same significance for people with ASDs.

This is a fascinating article that takes some attention to read, but will reward the attention.

Monogamy the Intelligent Choice?

Thanks to Solitaire Miles for sending me this item from the Telegraph. According to Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, intelligent men are more likely than the general population to remain faithful to their mates.

Kanazawa told Telegraph writer Matthew Moore that he thinks this is because in primitive times, it was adaptive for a man to father children with multiple women; now that this is no longer adaptive, only more intelligent men have the ability to " shed the psychological baggage of their species and adopt new modes of behaviour."

I disagree -- not about his finding about the correlation between intelligence and monogamy. My understanding of the research by Thomas Insel, Larry Young and others is that the human brain is structured like those of the other 3 percent of monogamous mammals. We have more oxytocin receptors in our brain's reward center, causing us to tie the reward of sex to an individual. 

This is social monogamy, not true sexual monogamy. That strong bond with a mate doesn't preclude that monogamous 3 percent from sexual activity with other individuals. In prehistoric times, this let human males have the best of both worlds: investing substantial resources in the survival of his mate's children while spreading a bit of his seed around at random.

In today's structured and complex Western societies, most of us expect sexual monogamy within marriage. Perhaps it takes a bit more brain power for men to resist the lure of extramarital sex.

By the way, Kanazawa found no such correlation between intelligence and sexual monogamy in women. What does that mean?