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February 2006
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April 2006

Some call it love ...

James Kushiner of Touchstone Magazine comments on February's  National Geographic article about the biochemical basis of romance and love.  He doesn't seem to think it's useful -- or romantic -- to think about the underlying biochemistry of emotion. He writes,

Perhaps it helps even more than oxytocin to belong to a really big and loving family when all is said and done.

Neurochemistry is one of those things you don't notice  when it's working right.  But I think there's a growing percentage of people growing up without loving families for whom the oxytocin response isn't working right. For those of us, understanding our neurochemistries can be the first step in healing.

Oxytocin, Pain and Surrender

Pain, Bonding and the Kindness of Strangers

In a long post, Mothersvox ponders the biochemistry of surrender. After she was flattened by a bike messenger, she felt waves of joy as she lay there.

Each person who came by to help suddenly looked lovelier than the last, and the blue of the winter sky was so exquisite that it nearly brought tears to my eyes. How was it that everything and everyone had suddenly become of so unaccountably lovely?
What, I wondered, happens when we're suddenly injured? What happens that inures us to the pain of our injuries and renders our impression of others beneficent?

My thought was oxytocin.

I've never seen anything written about this, but it absolutely makes sense to me.

Oxytocin is part of the parasympathetic nervous system that moderates fight-or-flight impulses. It also reduces pain and makes us feel bonded to others. If there is a "surrender response," it may be greater in females; what UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor calls "tend and befriend" behavior.

In her book, "The Tending Instinct," Taylor explains that in stressful or dangerous situations, women are more likely to close ranks, gathering with other women and children to support each other, while men are more likely to jump up and fight to protect the family, clan or whatever. This is (simplistically) because men have higher levels of vasopressin -- the jump up and protect hormone -- and more testosterone, which mutes oxytocin. Women's higher levels of estrogen increase the calming, bonding effects of oxytocin.

Throughout evolution, women -- smaller, weaker and encumbered with children -- would have a better chance of surviving or enabling children to escape by giving up when attacked.

Evolution of Trusting Societies

Nicholas Wade of the New York Times writes about the genetic components of social behavior.  Reporting on a new analysis by Jonathan Pritchard of the University of Chicago, he writes:

Evolutionary changes in the genome could help explain cultural traits that last over many generations as societies adapted to different local pressures.

Pritchard found more than 700 parts of the human genome that have changed in recent times -- by evolutionary standards, at least. The average age of the changes was 6,600 years.

Some changes could be the result of diet, such as genes that allow the digestion of lactose, which became prevalent in inhabitants of what is now Sweden and Holland, where the practice of drinking cow's milk began.

But this rapid genetic change also can explain societal traits, Wade says, specifically the develoment of high-trust or low-trust societies.

Oxytocin levels are known to be under genetic control in other mammals.

It is easy to imagine that in societies where trust pays off, generation after generation, the more trusting individuals would have more progeny and the oxytocin-promoting genes would become more common in the population.

So, when we travel to a country or region where "the people are so warm and friendly," we may be experiencing a real genetic and biochemical difference.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal has a discussion among people who know a lot about statistics, some of whom dispute the science in Wade's story.


Are Cuddle Parties Pathetic?

Samantha Bennett of the Pittsburg Post-Gazette is funny.  She disses The Boyfriend's Arm, a pillow that sleeps in for a real man, and then bemoans the popularity of Cuddle Parties.

It's come to this: People are so starved for affectionate touch that they will pay $20 or $30 (NYC pricing; yours may vary) to spend three hours sprawled on blankets and pillows with a roomful of strangers ... cuddling.

Bennett says that The Boyfriend's Arm targets women's deep need for stroking and physical contact -- one men don't share. I don't believe this is true. Men's bodies secrete oxytocin during orgasm and they probably do during other, softer forms of physical contact. But most articles focus on women and oxytocin, the "tend and befriend" response.

In any case, instead of saying, ain't it awful that we need to pay to go to cuddle parties, we should start looking at why this is so and how we could change our culture and child-rearing practices to enable us to give and receive human warmth naturally in the course of our days.

Bennett's column by way of Angelinger.

A Practical Reason to Stall Sex

Jasmine offers a precis of Lisa Dailey's book Stop Getting Dumped!, which offers a really practical reason why women should hold off on having sex with men they're dating. I'm such a strong believer in women having the same privileges as men -- including taking charge of sex and doing what they want -- that I feel horribly retro in my newly forming belief that it's better to hold off.

This makes me feel less like Phyllis Schafly.

According to Jasmine, Daily explains   

Daily says that many women don't even realize just how much sex changes the dynamics of a relationship. When women have sex, they release a hormone called oxytocin (also referred to as "the cuddle hormone"), which some scientific researchers believe makes women feel extra warm and fuzzy for their sex partners. Daily warns that if women do the deed too soon, they might make too much of a relationship that barely ever existed outside of the bedroom. When you inflate the significance of a relationship, the man often bolts.

Jewels Down Below: 10 traits every man is looking for in a serious girlfriend.

Oxytocin made me ... mean!

Lest we get too caught up in believing that biochemistry is destiny, this article by Toronto Star scrivener Leslie Scrivener reminds us that women can be as brutally competitive as men, despite our being more open to the bonding, calming effects of oxytocin.

Link: - The cult of the mean girl

... there's a war out there — the combatants are women, the weapons are words and treachery, and battle has been waged since one Neanderthal woman narrowed her eyes suspiciously at another as their husbands went off to hunt wild boar for dinner.

Scrivener quotes Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees & wannabees, as well as Cheryl Dellasega, author of Mean Girls Grown Up, Phyllis Chesler, author of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, Leora Tanenbaum, who wrote Catfight: Rivalries among Women — From Diets to Dating, From the Board Room to the Delivery Room, and Susan Murphy and Pat Heim, authors of In the Company of Women: Indirect Aggression Among Women — Why We Hurt Each Other & How to Stop.

All of them document the ways women are socialized to compete with and castigate each other, often in uniquely feminie ways.

Scrivener closes by saying that most women have more "tend and befriend" female relationships than mean-women ones.


Wicked Ink from the Poison Pen

Rachel of Wicked Ink writes about "The Echo Boom of the Sexual Revolution." She says young women are bombarded with images of successful, interesting, single women. Her friends are more likely to hold off on sex with men they're interested in, hooking up with Mr. Wrongs for one-nighters.

After one disasterous experience of falling in love overnight, then discovering he wasn't attached, she had four-date relationships.

"I don't think I was lacking oxytocin, I think it might have scared me that I might get hurt again."

Until she had a child. She fell in love with him with a different kind of passion, and she thinks being a parent helped her prepare for being a better partner in a relationship.

"Sex is way too easy. And all too often, once sex happens, and is 'fulfilling', people try to force a relationship between themselves just so they can continue on fulfilling each other and themselves."

I think this is a key insight. But I think it's the release of oxytocin in sex or making out that makes us -- especially women -- try to force a relationship, because we .. just ... feel ... so bonded.

isiscolo: [Notcapade] The chemical basis of fannishness?

Isis makes an interesting connection between dopamine (love 1.0), oxytocin (love 2.0) and fandom. She points out that the intensity of crushes on stars or fictional characters feels like the rush of romance -- and is probably fueled by the same neurochemicals. She thinks such crushes may be a good way of getting that chemical fizz without endangering that oxytocin-rich long-term relationship.

Link: isiscolo: [Notcapade] The chemical basis of fannishness?

I wonder whether my approach to fandom is related to my oxytocin-mediated relationship - I'm looking for that dopamine high, that fizzy love feeling, so I get these big crushes on characters (or, ahem, actors, or even other lj-people), and I thrill to the first-time story, the new-love story. (Which is why I think fandom is a good thing. If I wasn't involved in the relatively harmless pursuit of fictional characters, I might be out there pursuing real people. This way, I get all hot and bothered, and then bother my husband. :-)