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December 2006
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Get More Oxytocin for Better Sex

Oxytocin is not a hormone of sexual desire. It's the hormone of healing, relaxation, connection and love. But an MD and author says more oxytocin can lead to better sex.

When we're stressed out, making love often seems like the last thing on our minds. But C.W. Randolph, author of "From Hormone Hell to Hormone Well," says he often advises his patients that hanging out more with friends will improve their sex lives.

When a man or woman comes to  him complaining of low libido, he tests levels of their sex hormones and askes them about stress in their lives. He says the relationship between  friendship and hormone balance is particulary important for women.

"Make a friend and be one. My theory is based on over a decade of treating tens of thousands of women who come to me complaining of loss of sexual desire," says Dr. Randolph. "I tell my female patients that, if they make time for more positive emotional experiences with one to two women friends, they will soon discover that they are more readily able to connect with and get turned on by their husband or partner."

Schore: Freud Was (Mostly) Right

One subtext of Cal State Chico's Children in Trauma Conference was how much Freud got right about how our minds and emotions work.

In today's session focussing on the therapeutic alliance, and how and why therapy works, Allan Schore spoke at length about counter-transferance. He said the concept has moved from psychoanalysis to most flavors of psychotherapy.

Another thing Freud got right was the existence and importance of the unconscious, which Schore says is seated in the right hemisphere.

What he didn't get right, according to Schore, was the idea that releasing the negative emotions resulted in healing.

In fact, Schore said, it's countertransference that provides the healing in psychotherapy: As therapist and patient together create trust -- a safe place -- the patient begins to dare to re-experience small doses of trauma or the hurtful feelings that had not been experienced, remembered or expressed.

According to Schore, "In the moment, the context between therapist and patient must be safe enough for the patient to begin to drop defenses and experience in his body -- and tolerate -- affects that were too dangerous to experience, to feel, let alone communicate.

"What seems to create the healing is the pairing of the reactivated traumatic memory with the context of safety and comfort. That's what didn't happen in the first place when the parent was disengaged or hyperarousing."

Meth, RAD and Attachment Therapy

Kicking off the second day of Cal State Chico's Children in Trauma conference, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey talked about the county's Drug Endangered Children Program.

Ramsey said that narcotics police would make drug busts, clear out the drugs, arrest the adults and push the crying kids into the arms of the first available adult -- who might themselves be drug addicts. There may be three generations of meth users in a family.

He said, "One issue is the disconnect of these children that have no parenting, children that are left alone and passed from caretaker to caretaker. Absolutely flat affect in children taken from these homes. Most of us coming from "normal" homes would expect that when heavily armed narcotics agents break down the door, the children would be very frightened about being taken from their parents. But all it takes is for a CPS worker to come in and say, "Hi kids, we're going to McDonalds," and those children leave the parents in a flat second because they haven't bonded with those parents."

In response, main presenter Allan Schore, author of "Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self," reminded the audience, "We now know that even in the earliest events, infants are extremely aware of events and of their strongest attachments."

He said that while a child might have flat affect on the surface, there are likely rage and fear beneath the surface.

His presentation today focuses on how and why therapy works. He said, "Therapy is not a talking cure, it's a communication cure." That is, the therapist and patient must connect in the right hemisphere, the source of feeling.

Quick Note from Chico Children in Trauma Conference

The first day of Dr. Allan Schore's seminar on Children in Trauma is almost over. It's inspiring to have the current theories of attachment and childhood brain development laid out so clearly and substantively. Schore is including many references to the supporting scientific literature. I have reams of notes and an immense amount to process -- as does everyone else.

The audience is a mix of social workers, counselors, child advocates, attorneys and others in the legal and social welfare systems.

It's daunting to hear just how critical nurturing is to an infant, and what deep damage can be done. 

In Tronick's "still-face experimental paradigm of traumatic abuse, a mother is asked to briefly show a fearful expression and then to let her face go completely still. Both mother and infant get stressed when she is asked to make the dead face. Shore emphasized this: "Not only when the mother makes a fear face, but also when she makes a dead face, it's extremely stressful to the child."

In fact, in the tests, the baby typically goes into a defensive strategy of massive disengagement -- the same you see in babies who have been extremely neglected, for example, in "Spitz hospitalism" and Roumanian orphans. But this happens so quickly. Schore said, "We don't need to separate mother and baby. The defensive strategy of massive disengagement happens in just 20 seconds."

But there is plenty of hope. One quick takeaway is that, just as in a marriage, a child can handle a fair amount of stress as long as the mother or caregiver reconnects with the child afterward.

Schore says that for this reason, neglect is much more damaging than abuse.

Everywhere Orgasms

Daniel of NeuroInterests posted an interesting story. Functional MRi studies have found many parts of the body to be orgasmic. The scientists think that excitation of the hand, mouth, etc. activate the same systems as a genital orgasm. If that's the case, it means these anywhere-orgasms also release oxytocin.

When I was very young and inexperienced, I had a boyfriend who used to stroke my hand during class recess. I'd spend the entire class squirming in my seat. I had no idea what was going on. Wish Iwas that sensitive today.

Hand-holding, anyone?

Here's the full NeuroInterests post, with a link back to the original story.

There's a weird disconnect in the way we talk about breastfeeding. It's treated as a lifestyle choice, as though it weren't vitally important to a baby's health and well-being.

For example, in this article in The Phoenix, Dr. Mary Jane Cadieux says that one of the most important decisions a new mother faces is whether she will breast feed. True!

She then lists several reasons why breastfeeding is "beneficial" for babies:

Breast milk reduces the risk of infections in the gastrointestinal, urinary and respiratory tracts, lowers the rate of ear infections and protects against allergies, diabetes and later in life, obesity.
Other important medical findings regarding breastfeeding include:
· Babies' intelligence has been linked to being breastfed - those who were breastfed were smarter.
· Higher pain relief and reduced stress levels have been found in breastfed babies.
· Breastfeeding helps build stronger bones for babies.
· Breast milk has higher levels of good cholesterol in it, which is essential for proper growth and development.

She leaves out that it also creates a secure bond with the mother that translates into secure attachments throughout life.

So, with all this evidence of the importance of breastfeeding, why is it always discussed as simply one option for mothers?

I realize that breastfeeding advocates don't want to alienate women, or make those who didn't nurse feel criticized. But, if a mother doesn't want her children vaccinated, she can face legal action. If she doesn't choose to keep her child clothed and fed, he can be taken away from her. Why does she get to decide to withhold the most important thing a mother can give her baby?

Attachment Guru in Chico

Attachment theory is a psychologists' approach that examines patterns in the way we relate to those we love. The field took a huge advance with the advent of functional MRIs, which let researchers watch the brain in action.

Neuroscientists have discovered that the way we love -- or shy away from it, or cling to it -- isn't just a habit. It's encoded in the actual structure of the brain as it develops in the first year or so after birth.

Dr. Allan Schore of UCLA is probably the top researcher in this field. His first book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, sets out how our identity and emotions develop. His latest, Affect Regulation and Repair of the Self, has a wonderful message: No matter how damaged our emotions, they can be repaired -- at any age.

Dr. Schore's books are deep and intricately researched, aimed at professionals. They are quite challenging to read. That's why I'm so excited to have the opportunity to attend a two-day conference he's presenting this weekend in Chico, Calif.

Dr. Schore is leading the "Children in Trauma 2007 Conference" at California State University at Chico.  It's a professional development class designed for psychologists, social workers, educators and anyone else who works with children who've experienced trauma or fallen into the "system."

It's an opportunity to learn all about the development of the brain, the emotions and attachment from the master himself. Dr. Schore also will explain how to use the findings of neuroscience to help kids heal deeply and permanently.

By the way, this information can help all of us, as adults, heal ourselves, as well.

The New Feminism

Okay, there's been a new flavor of feminism announced every few years. But this article by Siri Agrell in Canada's National Post does a nice job of arguing that there's a new way of thinking about women's place in the world that acknowledges gender differences while rejecting gender roles.

Agrell writes,

And in almost every realm of corporate America, women occupied or vacated top jobs this year without making excuses. Oprah Winfrey continued her role as U.S. moral compass without being married, Katie Couric delivered the network news in sweater sets and lipstick, while Elizabeth Vargas gave up her anchor job to deliver her second child.

Perhaps most remarkably, of two leading Democratic presidential possibilities -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- it is not the woman's electability that is garnering the most debate.

Neuroscience has now identified differences in brain structures between men and women, as well as differences in its processing of thoughts, memories and emotions. On the neurotransmitter level, these differences are expressed by the different levels of testosterone and oxytocin in the male and female brains.

Society is coming to accept that oxytocin's influence tends to make women more collaborative, more socially engaged and more nurturing, while testosterone tends to make men more aggressive and more driven by sexual desire. (CAVEAT: This is a generalization about tendencies, not a statement of fact about any individual.)

As we come to accept our animal natures and the profound influence of biology and genetics on our thoughts and emotions, I believe we'll be able to be happier and more productive.

Animal Research and Human Love

As I explore research on the neurochemical basis of attachment, especially the intriguing studies of oxytocin and monogamous voles, the caveat is always, "A man is not a vole."

How much weight should we give to animal studies? How much can they tell us about human behavior?

Actually, quite a lot. After all, most pharmaceuticals and cosmetics  are tested first on animals.

For you naysayers, this 2003 review of the scientific literature of animal models for human sexual functioning found that the results of animal studies are highly applicable to people.

James Pfaus, Tod Kippen and Genaro Coria-Avila write,

Animals possess appetitive and consummatory aspects of sexual
behavior that are homologous and analogous to our own and that are
controlled by similar or identical neurochemical and hormonal systems.
They experience sexual arousal, desire, reward, and inhibition.

Males are excited by females that require some form of courtship or pursuit, and will work hard to obtain even small sexual rewards. Females like to control the initiation and rate of sexual contact. Sexual behavior in males is strengthened with experience, making them less vulnerable to treatments that disrupt sexual responding. The same may occur in females.

From an evolutionary perspective, sexual behavior appears to have similar processes and endpoints for all mammalian species and perhaps for all species that engage in it.

There are some fun anecdotes in the paper: Alcohol lowers the sexual inhibitions of male rats, while what "female rats really like about sex [is] their ability to control its occurrence and rate."