Previous month:
October 2006
Next month:
December 2006

How Keroack Gets It Wrong

Jillschneider Eric Keroack, President Bush's new appointee to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services' program that distributes contraceptives to poor or uninsured women, probably won’t be making it any easier for them to get birth control. Keroack believes abstinence is the best form of birth control -- and he says that women who engage in premarital sex can wear out their oxytocin response.

Hendrik Hertzberg wrote a complaint in the New Yorker about Keroack's concept of oxytocin as "God's Super Glue."

"Apparently, oxytocin is released during certain enjoyable activities, including hugging, massage, and, of course, sex. It is also, according to Keroack, the fluid that keeps married couples bound to each other. Therefore, if a young woman squanders her supply on too much fooling around, she can forget about ever becoming a committed wife."

And sex-positive feminist Susie Bright said,

"Keroack also opposes conception for married couples, and promotes jolly slogans like "abortion causes breast cancer." The story of his personal sex life will no doubt curdle mother's milk."

I spoke to Jill Schneider (pictured above), a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Lehigh University, who’s a strong critic of Keroack's idea that one hormone is responsible for all kinds of bonding.

HUG: What's wrong with Dr. Keroack's theories?

Schneider: He has the results of the animal studies somewhat garbled. He's spreading misinformation about the studies themselves. Then, his extrapolation to humans is also unfounded. Keroack is using something he learned about oxytocin and bonding, and fabricating a story that somehow premarital sex would release oxytocin and prevent a woman's ability to form a long-term pair bond in marriage.

It’s basically medical misinformation to say that the only healthy human relationship is monogamous marriage. Clearly, there are healthy single people and healthy people who practice serial monogamy. The United States is full of all types of healthy families.

HUG: Where do his theories go wrong?

Schneider: For example, oxytocin is released during childbirth and breastfeeding and orgasm. If a mother experiences this great oxytocin release with her first child, there's no evidence that it would cause her to bond exclusively with that child. She certainly has the ability to welcome the next child and the next one. So, why would this guy think that oxytocin going up during premarital sex would prevent a healthy pair bond during marriage?

HUG: Okay, but I thought the link between oxytocin and human bonding was pretty well accepted.

Schneider: I think the mother/baby attachment stuff is very strong in animal models. In human models, it's an extrapolation to think it’s oxytocin. There are many other hormones that may be involved, most notably, the stress hormones, the glucocorticoids.

For example, adoptive mothers are excellent mothers. They don't nurse or give birth to those children, so they don’t have these big releases of oxytocin. Even juvenile humans can be extremely maternal. Boys can be nurturing, and dads can take very good care of their offspring. There have to be other mechanisms in mothering.

Anyway, there is evidence that oxytocin is released during orgasm, but it’s unclear what percentage of women reach orgasm in premarital or post-marital sex.

HUG: Good point! What about the study of kids from Rumanian orphanages, who showed loser levels of oxytocin when they cuddled with their moms?

Schneider: Yes, that supports the idea, but it’s a correlation: Correlations are not causation, they don’t tell you that the hormone caused the behavior. There could be other hormones that are higher or lower in these children. There could be a third causal factor that causes both the behavior and the oxytocin level.

That certainly falls in line with the hypothesis that oxytocin is important for mother/infant bonding. But it doesn’t address pre-marital sex and bonding.

HUG: What about the trust studies, where inhaling oxytocin made people more trusting of each other?

Schneider: Those are really intriguing studies. They do very much fall in line with the idea that oxytocin is involved in relationships, getting along with people and trusting them. But again, the behaviors that were measured were not marriage or long-term monogamous relationships, they were aspects of relationships.

HUG: You called Keroack's thinking "loose anthropomorphism." What do you mean?

Schneider: It's when a scientist studying behavior in another species projects his or her own emotions and political or religious agenda onto the animal being studied. He is projecting his own religious point of view onto a variety of data that comes from animal models. It’s a matter of looking at these hormones and receptors objectively versus adding a lot of your own political and religious baggage to what you see.

All behavioral biologists try to avoid this, because it clouds their own point of view about the animal they're studying. Once you have a lot of scientific data, you can use them to form political decisions, for example, using data about climate change to inform political decisions about global warming. Keroack has done the opposite; he used his agenda to create so-called knowledge about oxytocin.

Everyone has an agenda. Everyone who performs a scientific experiment has an agenda that influences what they study and how they interpret the studies. It's really important to just be aware of your agenda, and to try disclose it. 

Some Really Good Guy Advice

Have you seen thoses ads for those "how to seduce women" books -- the ones where a gorgeous woman looks hypnotized? I always thought they were creepy. I may have been wrong.

I ran across a blog entry by Patrick Huey, who evidently is an affiliate marketer for the "Seduction Mastery Apprenticeship Program," and I wish every man would read it. His advice is uncommonly humane, and he manages to give this womanly advice in guy-talk they just might listen to.

He dispels the myth that women don't like "nice guys." According to Huey, 

You don't have to be the bad boy to attract a woman, whether she is 20 or any other age, and in fact you can do BETTER than any "bad boy" if you take the effective stuff about "bad boys" (which has nothing to do with being "bad" per se) and THROW AWAY THE USELESS stuff.

For example, their inability to emotionally CONNECT. That would be an example of something that is not only useless, but counterproductive about "bad boys".

He notes that oxytocin causes men and women to want to bond with one another and "treat other FANTASTICALLY. LONG TERM."

He writes:

I'm proud to say that several YEARS ago, I was the only guy on a certain board of "how to be successful with women" that championed the idea that relationship success was partially based on the idea of having two people who took on the PARADIGM of seeking EVER GREATER VALUE in the OTHER person.

And that this would result in triggering the powerful emotions of desire and affection simply by the THOUGHT of each other, not only in the short term, but in the LONG term as well, because in fact the more it was done, the stronger the associations would become linked between the thought of that person and the chemical release.

Gee. "Seducing" a woman by being your best self and being sensitive to her. What a concept.

The Anxious Romance

  Ed loves me 
  Originally uploaded by sagasurfer.

Researchers at the University of Pisa looked at the relationship between levels of oxytocin in the blood and anxiety in romantic relationships -- and what they found was counterintuitive.

First, they gave the 45 subjects in the study a questionnaire known as "Experiences in Close Relationships." This assesses the type of attachment a person experiences in a relationship.  Psychologists who study attachment have pretty much agreed on four different attachment styles, although they sometimes use different names for them. The styles are: preoccupied, dismissing, fearful/avoidant and secure.

Preoccupied lovers are worried about losing their mates; they obsess over every little contretemps and can be really clingy. Dismissing people protect themselves from the pain of loss by not letting people get too close in the first place. Fearful/avoidant people crave closes relationships, but have difficulty trusting others.

Preoccupied and fearful/avoidant people score high on anxiety in relationships. Dismissive people have limited possible anxiety by refusing to allow anyone to matter too much, while secure people are, well, secure.

After categorizing the subjects attachment styles, for two months, the researchers sampled the participants' blood and measured the amount of oxytocin in each sample.  (Although the mechanisms that release oxytocin into the blood are different from those that release it into the nervous system, several studies support a correlation between the two. It's relatively easy to measure plasma levels, and researchers have come to accept that what's circulating in the blood reflects what's running through the nervous system.)

The Pisa team looked for links between the presence and duration of romantic attachments, the amount of anxiety a test subject felt about his or her lover and the oxytocin level.

Because oxytocin is the hormone of peace and satisfaction, you might expect that the more secure people would have the highest levels. Instead, the Pisans found that the more anxious someone was about romance, the more oxytocin circulated in her veins.

In typical cautious scientific fashion, the researchers said this study "may constitute undoubtedly the first report of a link between oxytocin and that state of anxiety which is associated with romantic attachment in our species."

But why would the anxious lover have higher oxytocin levels than the secure one? The study doesn't show whether it's a cause or a consequence of the anxiety, but the researchers think that the brains of the worried lovers may release extra oxytocin to counteract all that stress.

Their hypothesis is that, for some of us, a romantic relationship is more stressful than comforting, so the body keeps boosting oxytocin so that we can overcome the fear of rejection or pain long enough to experience the pleasures of attachment.

This mechanism may have evolved, they think, to allow our remote ancestors to overcome their instinctual avoidance of strangers in order to meet, mate and reproduce.

They wrote,

Humans are obliged to face a paradox which is fundamental to the survival of the species: they are attracted to, courted by and breed with genetically unrelated individuals whom they would otherwise instinctively avoid. Romantic attachment is the psychological strategy which enables us to overcome neophobia and to mate with and create a strong, often life-long bond with a complete stranger, so that we may produce healthier offspring.

[At] the same time, we are rewarded by a deep sense of pleasure and satisfaction through the intervention of specific neural substrates …

Aussies Turn to Hypnobirthing

The tide has turned against optional cesarians in Australia, according to Caroline Marcus of the Sydney Morning Herald. She writes that hypnobirthing -- using breathing, relaxation and visualization techniques to ease labor -- is becoming almost mainstream.

Canberra-based psychologist Shari Read, who led workshops in Sydney in February and May, said that while hypnosis was introduced in Australia as a birthing alternative in the late 1990s, it was only now becoming mainstream.

"Australia-wide, it is picking up," Dr Read said. "There is a little bit of a move - almost a backlash from people. There is the whole 'too posh to push' label attached to some people. Then there are some other people who say, 'No, our bodies are actually designed to do this. We're going to do the best job we can the natural way'."

The article points out that feeling relaxed promotes the release of oxytocin, while stress or fear inhibits it.

See also "Labor Like a Cat" and "Medical Meddling in Birth."

Oxytocin for Sleep Apnea

This recently published patent application covers the use of oxytocin to treat sleep apnea, that condition in which a person's snoring is so bad that breathing stops completely for anywhere from a couple seconds to half a minute.

The inventor, Dr. Jeffrey D. Gould, is head of Neurology and Sleep Medicine, P.C. in Bethlehem, Penn.

For an official diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), pauses in breathing must last at least 10 seconds and happen at least five times per hour.

OSA is linked with increased risks of stroke, myocardial infarction, uncontrollable hypertension and obesity. There's some evidence that it's linked with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. And it can make a person dangerously sleepy, or, at best, unproductive.

According to Dr. Gould's application, this disorder affects 4 percent of men and 2 percent of women. Common treatments include removing some of the low-hanging tissue at the back of the throat or providing a mask that increases air pressure. But these don’t always work. Over-the-counter remedies include inhalers, antihistamines and those funny little pieces of tape that are supposed to hold the nostrils wider apart.

According to his patent application,

Muscles in the throat are two types, skeletal and smooth. … Skeletal muscle is under direct mental control allowing for functions such a phonation and voluntary swallowing. REM sleep is an example of complete atonia of the skeletal muscle. Smooth muscle also has a tone reduction in sleep which worsens in REM sleep. Of note is that this stage of sleep is typically when OSA is at its worst. If muscarinic receptors can be stimulated on smooth muscle receptors in the throat during sleep, the muscles would remain contracted. These contracted muscles would keep the airway forced open, remediating apnea, which is caused by recurrent throat closure.

Oxytocin is known to interact with the smooth muscle of the uterus. Specifically, it binds to muscarinic receptors which produce contraction of uterine muscle. The muscarinic smooth muscle receptors of the uterus are the same as in other body organs including the throat.

Therefore, oxytocin might keep the throat from relaxing quite so much, which in turn would keep those floppy places from flopping so low they cut off all the air.

Gould's best dose and delivery method for treating an adult with OSA is 10 units (for a 70 kg. person) intramuscularly at the time of sleep. However, few people would be willing to give themselves a nice little injection at bedtime. The injection doesn’t have to be in the throat ... but still.

He's found that suppositories, nasal sprays and tablets work if they're in extended release form with a delivery rate of 10 units delivered over a seven-hour period.

Get More Oxytocin Today!

That sounds like a cover line from a woman's magazine, doesn't it?

But no sooner did Angie ask, "What are the natural ways to boost oxytocin?" than this article appeared in The Mirror. It includes one of the most reliable (although admittedly not the easiest) ways to get an oxytocin fix. In "15 Instant Energy Boosters," Michele O'Connor writes:

"An orgasm releases oxytocin, a hormone that increases mental clarity and energy - for up to 12 hours," says Jacob Teitelbaum, author of "From Fatigued To Fantastic" (Avery publishing, £7.59). And in a 10-year study of 900 British men, those who had sex most often had the best physical health and overall energy reserves."

(Because oxytocin promotes rest and healing, that's not surprising.)

I imagine that masturbation works just as well as twofer sex. But there are other, more reliable things you can do right now to enjoy a bit of the other Big O:

Hug: You can hug anyone, really. Hold that clinch for at least 20 seconds. Just relax into it. Ahhh.

Hug your friend: Female bonding is likely promoted by oxytocin, according to Shelley Taylor, author of "The Tending Instinct."

Hug your dog: Or pet her, or nuzzle her, or whatever you two do together. (See My Dog Really Loves Me.)

Get a massage: Opt for a soothing one, not a "deep tissue release" session. Gentle touch stimulates the release of oxytocin.

Eat comfort food: As fat is digested, the intestine secretes CCK, a hormone that stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve sends s message to the hypothalamus, which shoots down some oxytocin. The gut has as many oxytocin receptors as the brain. (Just don’t overdo this. Tofu or yogurt will work as well as ice cream.)

Trust, Greed and Moral Bastards

cooperation, originally uploaded by Kaká.

An op ed article by Paul Zak identifies problems with the oxytocin response as the vause of the corruption we see in business today. Zak is one of the neuroeconomics  researchers who operates "trust games." He's found that when people begin to trust each other during a game, their oxytocin levels go up. Moreover, when they sniff oxytocin, they play the game more trustingly.

He writes that we're wired to trust, so cooperation feels good. That enjoyment of cooperation is what keeps business humming along: I trust you to pay me tomorrow for the hamburger I produced and shipped today.

In the Taipei Times, Zak writes:

    We have also found that about two percent of undergraduates we studied are pure non-cooperators. When they have an opportunity to share money with a stranger who has trusted him or her, non-cooperators keep all the money rather than share the largess.

    The technical term in my lab for these people is "bastards."

    Our evidence suggests that bastards' brains work differently. Their character traits are similar to those of sociopaths.

    They simply do not care about others the way most people do, and the dysfunctional processing of oxytocin in their brains appears to be one reason for this.

It's not  inevitable that these moral bastards would rise to the top in business, but today's  empahsis on "driving shareholder value" over creating  businesses that produce value to employees and customers has opened the door to  these predators.

My Dog Really Loves Me


Mike often wonders out loud whether Toby really likes it when we pet him, or whether he just acts that way to get food.

An evolutionary biologist would say Toby's behaviors -- wriggling, wagging his tail, leaning up against us -- evolved over eons because they proved to be effective ways of getting humans to share their resources.

Maybe so. But it feels good to Toby, too.

J.S.J. Odendaal and R.A. Meintjes of Pretoria's Life Sciences Institute measured the blood levels of endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin, B-phenylethylamine and dopamine -- the chemicals of relaxation and pleasure -- and cortisol, the stress hormone, in both people and dogs before and after they interacted affectionately.

They compared levels of the neurochemicals three times: after people petted their own dogs, petted unfamiliar dogs and after they sat quietly and read a book.

In both humans and dogs, those chemicals of pleasure rose after five to 24 minutes of petting. In addition, the people's cortisol levels fell as they enjoyed their pets. The dogs' cortisol remained the same, probably because they found this new environment interesting and fun.

The increase in oxytocin was higher in the experimental group where people interacted with their own dogs.

Pet lovers will find this study especially interesting, because it lends scientific support to what we feel is true: Our dogs love us back.

When you define emotions as physiological states instead of psychological processes and then identify a similar state in human and animal, it only makes sense to say that man and dog feel the same.

Odendaal and Meintjes believe that oxytocin can be used as a measure of  "social attachment on an intraspecies basis."

In fact, buried in one of their papers is this rather revolutionary statement: "It becomes clear that some emotions are universal among vertebrates."

Emotions that we call love, that is.

The Joy of Breastfeeding

Willow & Bel, originally uploaded by The Department.

In Touchingly Naive, Maia examines the connection between breastfeeding and sexuality -- and why that seems like such a scary idea to some people.

She writes,

    The mistake is a wider one, in the idea that a connection between breastfeeding and sexuality means that breastfeeding your baby is like having sex with your children.

    The reality is that breastfeeding is normal, natural and healthy, and that breastfeeding is connected with sexuality. That's OK. This connection is itself normal, natural and healthy. It is not an equation of breastfeeding with sex. It is not about getting turned on by our babies. It is about a sensuality that is related to, but very clearly distinct from, the sex we have with our partners.

I don't think it's true, however, that breastfeeding advocates try to downplay the connection.  At least in the U.S., many midwives I've spoken to not only acknowledge it, they encourage the connection. (Midwives may nit be the same population as the breastfeeding adbovztes Maia means,a lthough most midwives here do counsel about breastfeeding as well.)

The Chemicals of Emotion

In this transcript of a 1993  interview between Bill Moyers and Candace Pert, Dr. Pert does a wonderful job of explaining that very perplexing subject: how can chemicals produced by the body make us feel emotions?

Pert was the scientist who discovered the receptors for endorphins, the body's natural opiates. She discovered, moreover, that endorphins and other so-called neurochemicals are produced and taken up not only in the brain, but in many other parts of the body. She wrote about her research, which  led her toward examinations of consciousness, soul and the mind/body connection, in her book "The Molecules of Emotion."

Pert says a good way to think of neuropeptides and their receptors is to think of the receptors as satellite dishes that receive chemical communications and respond to them in ways specific to their place in the body. For example, the peptide angiotensin "tells" the kidneys and lungs  to conserve water, while it makes the brain feel thirsty, so the body will drink more water.

Moyers: So you’re saying that my emotions are the same as my physical reactions, and that they occur when a particular molecule hits a particular receptor?

Pert: I believe that’s true, yes.

Moyers: You’ve seen the molecule hit a receptor?

Pert: Absolutely. I’ve measured it.

Moyers: But have you seen the emotion it carries with it?

Pert: I’ve seen animals behave as if they had that emotion. Scientists who study rat and monkey behavior have seen animals behaving and have measured increases and decreases in the amounts of the neuropeptides being released.

Moyers: You know from scientific research that certain reactions occur when the neuropeptide hits the receptor. But there isn’t any way to identify the emotion that emerges from that, is there?

Pert: We’re really in the very early stages of being able to figure out which peptide mediates which emotion or whether combinations of peptides are involved. We have a few that we know pretty well because we have psychoactive drugs that give a certain effect. For example, we know that cocaine is a euphoriant, and we know what receptor system it interacts with in the brain.

Since this interview, functional MRIs have al.owed scientists to watch various parts of the brain as they're activated by external stimuli and exogenous peptides, including oxytocin.

We still don't totally understand just how a peptide like oxytocin translates into the experience of emotion, but we're much closer.