Love My Vagus Nerve

6212291122_666fa9df53_mIf you're a fan of neurochemistry and oxytocin, you probably know about the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight-or-flight type responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for calm-and-connection responses.

Marsha Lucas, PhD, wrote an excellent article explaining the polyvagal theory put forth by Stephen Porges, PhD (husband and colleague of Sue Carter, one of the primary oxytocin researchers).

She writes,

His polyvagal theory suggests that there are three circuits (not just two branches), which drive one of three possible responses, depending on how we sense the relative safety, danger, or threat to life in our bodies. ... if the [amygdala's] assessment is that the incoming information indicates that things are safe, a third part of the circuit (the ventral vagus) essentially “turns off” the fight-flight response, and social engagement can happen – a calm state that supports being connected with others. Being in this state allows for better health, growth, and communication.

I've been a fan of the vagus nerve since writing Chemistry of Connection. It's a primary conduit of oxytocin from the brain to the gut and genitals, and it's likely responsible for the connection we feel between food and love. And it may be responsible for that feeling of oneness and connectedness that psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "elevation."

Read Marsha's article for an excellent explanation of how the amygdala works and what we can experience when we feel safe. Marsha does not mention oxytocin, but, when she writes, "When the ventral vagus is “on”, we have a greater capacity to really listen, in a tuned-in way, to others," that's the effect of oxytocin traveling along this nerve.

To read more:

The Amazing Vagus Nerve

Let Us Elevate Together

The full article by Marcia Lucas is posted on Lisa Kift's blog.

Photo by eljay


Life Experience Critical for the Oxytocin Response

As we move toward Mother's Day, science gave us another reminder of how important mothering is -- mothering as the actions of caring for a child no matter what your biological relationship.

Research led by Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo looked at genes for oxytocin and vasopressin receptors that have been linked to kindness and generosity. They tested subjects to see if they had these genes, and they also asked them about whether they saw the world as threatening or not, and people as good or bad.

Simply having those kindness genes wasn't as important as life experiences that shaped the person's worldview. According to WebMD:

So although DNA may influence behavior, people do not come pre-programmed to be kind or mean or altruistic or selfish, says lead researcher Michael Poulin, PhD, of the University at Buffalo.

"We are not just puppets of our genes," Poulin tells WebMD. "Genes influence niceness in combination with perceptions of social threat, which come from our past and present experiences."


Revolt Brewing Over Pets in Dorms?

539325280_ba106b6568_mI was miserably lonely in college and sneaked a puppy into my dorm the spring of sophomore year. (That dog stayed with me until she died 14 years later.) So I can relate to Kendra Velzen, who is suing her college for telling her to get rid of her guinea pig.*

According to Courthouse News Service,

   "The presence of an emotional support animal provides Ms. Velzen with continued emotional support and attachment (thereby reducing symptoms of depression), physiological benefits (such as decreased heart rate), and psychological benefits (such as increased Oxytocin levels, which directly impact the sense of life satisfaction)," the complaint states.
     Velzen says the college allows physically impaired students to keep service dogs and nonpredatory fish in their dorm rooms.

This is the second such case to be in the news this year. See also, Dogs in Dorms an Antidote to Stress?

For some of us, pets can provide a substitute source of connection and oxytocin. For other people (like me) a pet can be the first living being we really connect with. It can be downright cruel to prohibit them at school.

*PS My first furry pets were guinea pigs -- my parents wouldn't let me have a dog.

PPS Guinea pigs are adorable and make great pets; some people eat them.

PHOTO: joffreylacoeur


Oxytocin Likely the Basis of Animal Friendships

Friendships are adaptive for animals, and they probably feel good, thanks to oxytocin. That's the gist of this article from Science News. I've certainly seen dogs who were best friends, and, of course, with animals in the wild, especially monkeys, those who cooperate in childcare and food-sharing are likely to survive longer and rear more offspring.

The article summarizes several research projects that try to correlate oxytocin to "friendly" behaviors.

With all the research on the effects of oxytocin in humans, this seems like an example of science working its way backwards from people to monkeys. But I am always happy to see science that helps illuminate that animals have emotions like we do.

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/339326/title/Furry_Friends_Forever

 


Sarah Hrdy on the Nature of Mothering

Are human males wired to scatter their seed? Or are we meant for cooperative breeding? Why are kids today so screwed up? Can women mother well while succeeding outside the home? Read an illuminating interview between Eric Michael johnson and Sara Blaffer Hrdy on the SciAM blogg.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2012/03/16/raising-darwins-consciousness-sarah-blaffer-hrdy-on-the-evolutionary-lessons-of-motherhood/


Odent: Pitocin in Childbirth Interferes with Breastfeeding

Natural childbirth advocate Michel Odent will present the results of a first-ever study of the effects of Pitocin on mothering and bonding.

Pitocin is artificial oxytocin usually administered in U.S. hospital births to manage labor -- and speed it along. Critics say that the amount used causes pain and distress to the mother and baby, and that it can cause the emerging baby's hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal system (the HPA axis) to be set at hyperactive levels.

Some think that the widespread use of Pitocin can upset the baby's oxytocin system, contributing to autism spectrum disorder or impaired bonding.

By way of MyBestBirth.com. As My Best Birth notes, it's crazy that while the use of Pitocin in hospitals is close to 95 percent, this study is unique. Thanks to @DoniImes for spotting this story.


Do Dogs Need to Inhale Oxytocin?

When I was a kid, dogs were happy bundles of love. Today, at least in Berkeley, a lot of them are grouchy, neurotic and fearful. Monash University's Animal Welfare Science Centre will study whether inhalilng oxytocin can make shelter dogs more adoptable.

When I researched my book, The Chemistry of Connection, I found strong evidence that the oxytocin response is shaped by early postnatal experience. I don't see why this would not be the case with dogs, as well. If a puppy doesn't get lots of love and attention from its human caretaker after it's separated from its dog mother, it may not learn to bond well with humans.

While some dogs at a shelter have a strong drive to connect with the humans to visit, coming to the bars and wagging their tales, others cower in the back or bark defensively. Not surprisingly, these are the dogs most likely to be put down after a few days.

Researcher Jessica Oliva will start a trial of 80 shelter dogs to see whether having a dog inhale oxytocin as it leaves the shelter with its new owner can increase the likelihood they will bond -- and decrease the likelihood of the dog being returned.

While I advocate that humans take the time to rebuild a healthy oxytocin response naturally, these dogs don't have that much time.

I might advocate that the adopting humans in the study also get a snort of oxytocin.


People, Pets and Oxytocin

NPR had a nice story on therapy animals, pointing out how bonding with an animal feels safer and can improve our ability to bond with people.

If you read my blog regularly or have heard me speak, you know that I think animals are one of the best ways "in" to connection. I first experienced love when I got a puppy.

It can be scary to try to connect with a human being -- and traumatic if the relationship fails. Animals are non-judgmental and easy to give to and receive from.


Self-Worth, Respect and Oxytocin

Sure, there's a connection between how we're treated and our feelings of self-worth. Is there also an oxytocin connection?

Nekole Shapiro of EmbodiedBirth speaks to the connection between how a woman feels about herself sexually--  whether on a date or in the birthing room -- and the production of oxytocin. Learn why disrespecting a laboring woman hinders the birthing process. She finishes by taking us through an exercise that can help you feel more in touch with your own body.

This is Nekole's intro to @RickiLake's movie More Business of Being Born - The VBAC Dilemma at Birth Uncut in Reno NV Nov. 2011.

 


Dogs in Dorms an Antidote to Stress?

Research shows that dogs make us healthier and happier. Should college dorms allow them?Rebecca McGoldrick @BrownUniversity thinks universities should create policies that allow for dogs in dorms.

http://www.browndailyherald.com/rebecca-mcgoldrick-12-the-student-dog-relationship-1.2689736#.TyBKnGUsFzY

McGoldrick writes,

... a casual conversation with my peers leads me to believe that many of us lack our greatest companion for years while earning a college degree. And science is showing that this interspecies relationship has more health implications than we might imagine.

She suggests policies could allow students to bring dogs from home, or they could participate in a fostering program with the local shelter or animal rescue organization.

As someone who sneaked a puppy into her dorm spring semester of her sophomore year -- and switched schools rather than give up the dog -- I'm all for it.