Mothers Are Oxytocin Machines
May 04, 2018
It's the time of year when we honor and thank mothers for all they do. I think their most important job is literally wiring their babies' brains so that they can learn to love.
Strangely enough, while humans are born with the ability to breathe, digest food and wave our arms and legs, we don't come out of the womb with the neural wiring to form social connections. In the first three years of life, the brain goes through a huge growth spurt, and millions of brain cells connect with each other to form neural scripts—that is, habitual ways of reacting to events.
When a mother feeds her baby, cuddles her, cares for him, oxytocin is released in the baby's brain. Oxytocin is a calming brain chemical, so the combination of oxytocin and a mother's touch teaches the baby that intimacy is safe and feels good.
This forms a healthy, lifelong neural script: Someone who was nurtured well instinctively reaches out to other people for pleasure or consolation. And it's a positive feedback loop: Connecting with others makes us feel better, so we're more likely to do it again and again.
Human connection, driven by oxytocin, isn't only important for our emotional wellbeing. It's also key to good health and longevity.
By the way, when I say "mother," that doesn't have to be a woman or a biological parent; a baby's primary caregiver, if he or she is lucky enough to have one, fulfills this role. But since it's Mother's Day, I'll stick with "mother."
We commonly talk about all the roles a mother plays: nurturer, healer, teacher, chauffeur, cleaner, role model, etc. etc. But maybe her most powerful role is architect--architect of the human brain and its ability to enjoy one of the most resonant human experiences: love.
My book, The Chemistry of Connection explains how the oxytocin response develops and how it affects all our relationships throughout our lives. It's a great gift for mothers, mothers-to-be, and anyone else who wants to understand how and why we love.
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