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September 2005
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Mother/ Baby Telepathy

It often seems like I have a psychic bond with people I'm close to. In fact, I often feel that I know what strangers are feeling. Anthropologists would say that I am probably remarkably good at reading the expressions and body language of others.

Rupert Sheldrake of Mind Power News says that mothers often feel they can tell when their babies need them, even when they're far away. Often, their milk "lets down" while they're apart from baby, a process mediated by oxytocin. He writes:

Some nursing mothers claim that when they are away from the baby they often know when the baby needs them because their milk lets down.

So, Sheldrake did a survey of 100 mothers; he found that about 16 percent experienced their milk letting down while away and finding out later that the baby had been crying at that time.

Of the women who said their milk let down when their baby needed them, 15 out of 16 breast fed their babies for more than 6 months. By contrast, out of the19 mothers who said their babies did not need them when their milk let down, only 9 breast-fed for more than 6 months. These differences were very significant statistically (chi-squared 8.67; p<0.005).

Sheldrake posits that this synchronicity could be the result of mother and baby's systems becoming attuned; it's also possible, he says, that mothers simply notice and remember the times when this coincidence occurred.

Oxytocin and Alcoholism

The Trials and Turbulations blog has an interesting post about the relationship between low oxytocin levels and alcoholism.

Karen, the author, quotes Arthur Janov, inventor of Primal Therapy, who said that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings work because they help raise levels of oxytocin and suppress pain.

Conversely, if there had been love very early on, the levels would be high and pain levels low.There would have been no need to drink. So the support groups are patching up the lack generated early in life by the absence of love.

She also links to a study showing wounds healed faster in hamsters that had social contact with a sibling -- or isolated hamsters given oxytocin by injection. Gee, this makes me feel sorry for all the hamsters huddled alone in their little plastic cages.

To Eat or Not to Eat

That is the question. For most of us, it's an easy answer. Those of us lucky enough to have food will eat it.

Anorexics are different. Exactly how they are different is a perplexing question that Serguei Fetissov of the Karolinska Institute hopes  to answer.

In the Cavalier Daily, Michael McDuffie writes,

Although this is often taken as dehumanizing, it is a natural human tendency to believe that there is some sense of self-efficacy to be obtained in overcoming our own biology. This is of course a foolhardy idea in that one cannot overcome what one is at a physical level in any phenomenological sense.

Fetissov's study reported on elevated levels of antibodies that block oxytocin and vasopressin found in anorexic women, and it speculated that these were the result of a pathogen mimicking the bodies own antibodies.

McDuffie is more interested in this part of the theory than in the idea that an inability to use oxytocin and vasopressin contribute to anorexia. And, he pooh poohs it:

Besides a small sequence similarity that one likely can find occurring naturally by chance, there is not a shred of evidence presented to support the influence of infection in eating disorders. It is much more plausible that the production of these autoantibodies is in response to stress, but this is not mentioned.

The Cavalier Daily  is the newspaper of the University of Virginia.

Sundered from Mother Earth

In this poetic and thoughtful article on Indian Country Today, John Wickham posits a sort of ecological attachment disorder. He says that  modern humans, deprived of the deep connection with the earth enjoyed by cultures that hunt and gather, endure

mounting psychic stress, mental illness and social disorder plaguing affluent societies as the consequence of a dysfunctional, immature relationship with nature.

If repressed by poor parenting and culture, an individual's full emotional maturity becomes stunted into adulthood as an ecological attachment disorder. Left untreated, this failed development of self, when aggravated by society, never moves beyond the pre-adolescent impulse to control early fears in a frightening environment.

Wickham compares this to what happens to children who are deprived of the care and bonding they need to grow into loving, functional adults:

[We suffer] a profound loss of humility and tender sense of earthly limitations once invoked by a harmonious and reverent liaison with nature. Humanity has become disconnected and alienated from a non-human world fallen and debased. Man has become enraptured in a mania of domination and absolute control to worship a hydra of endless consumption and materialism.

Wickham is writing about the attempts of Washington State's Makah Indians to reinstate their ceremonial whale hunts. Before your knee starts jerking, look down at your feet. Are your shoes leather? Then, read his piece.

Oxytocin Sweetens Males (mice at least)

HealthDay News (via reports on a new study showing that a lack of oxytocin in male mice made them more aggressive.

The male mice were highly aggressive, quicker to attack intruders and more likely to fight them for a longer period. It wasn't clear, however, if the missing hormone might lower some other types of aggression.

The male mice were also more likely to forget the identity of females they had met.

As for the female mice, they sometimes forgot to retrieve their babies when they wandered off.

Dates Boost Oxytocin

No, I'm not talking about kanoodling, I mean the food: those super-sweet fruits that some of us adore and others find a bit strange. In the Middle East, of course, they're adored, and the Yemeni Times says they're better for you -- and for your love life -- than oysters or chocolate. Dr. Qazi Shaikh Abbas Borhany writes,

According to Medical studies, the ripe date contains a substance that urges uterine spasms and increases contractions especially in the time of delivery. This substance resembles ‘oxytocin’ that is secreted by the interior lobe of pituitary gland, which encourages contractions of the uterus.

Besides strengthening manhood in those of the male persuasion, he writes,

Dates contain elements that assist in alleviating depression and enrich the breast milk with the nutrients needed to make the child healthy and resistant to disease.

The Parenting Obsession

The cerebrospinal fluid of first-time parents and that of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder both have high levels of oxytocin, the Times reports. James Leckman of Yale was looking for a neurotransmitter that might play a role in OCD and stumbled upon this similarity.

Leckman suggests that you need to be somewhat obsessive in order to prepare for a new baby and keep it alive.

“The question was,” Leckman says, “what did all the behaviours associated with oxytocin, such as pair-bonding, have to do with OCD? Then I remembered how I behaved when my wife was pregnant with our first child. Every time she got a fever or a cold, I had these intrusive thoughts about harm coming to the baby. I remember my wife cleaning all the time, even moving the refrigerator. And even though I was a really busy medic, I found the time to build a cradle from scratch. I just came up with the idea that [parenting] is a normal, adaptive version of OCD.”

In particular, two variants of OCD — compulsive checking to ensure no harm comes to one’s family and an inordinate desire for cleanliness — are familiar to new parents, Anjana Ahuja writes.

I certainly agree that having total responsibility for keeping a fragile newborn alive would require new levels of resourcefulness and attention to detail. But I don't get why heightened levels of oxytocin would create this obsessive state.

Oxytocin activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that's responsible for lowering blood pressure, counteracting cortisol, the stress hormone, and generally calming you down.

Leckman hasn't published his results. I'd wonder what else was in that cerebrospinal fluid. What about vasopressin, which is more responsible for alertness and responding to threats? What about cortisol, released in preparation for fight or flight? Also, were the samples taken from men or women?