UCLA scientists have confirmed something we feel intuitively must be true: Massage increases oxytocin.
Countless magazine and newspaper articles have said getting a massage is a good way to increase your oxytocin levels, and it sure makes sense. But there has been no scientific evidence that it was the case. According to this article in the Boston Globe, a new study included not only playing the Trust Game after getting a massage, but also drawing people's blood to measure the oxytocin levels. This study used men and women, too.
According to the article,
volunteers at UCLA were randomly assigned to be massaged or just wait in a room for 15 minutes and then play an anonymous, one-shot, money-giving game via computer. Those who were massaged returned 38 percent of the money that was given to them, compared with 11 percent for those who were not massaged. The researchers also drew blood from each person before and after the experiment to see if physiological changes - namely in the level of the hormone oxytocin, which is known to influence bonding behavior - could explain the effect. There was an increase in oxytocin only for those people who were massaged and then played the game.
Another way to describe the effect of oxytocin is to say that the well-kneaded group returned 243 percent more money than the stiffer bunch. The effect was stronger in women than in men, which also makes sense, given our greater sensitivity to oxytocin's effects.
They saw this effect not so much after the massage itself as after the trust game. Paul Zak, one of the researchers, thinks that the massage acts as a signal to the brain to be open to trusting interactions.
Another way of saying this is that massage makes us more relaxed, and when we're relaxed, we tend to be more open to others.
To get the most oxytocin-producing benefits, choose a gentle, soothing massage style. Avoid deep tissue work or acupressure; while these are valuable techniques for reducing muscle tension, their intensity may not allow for the right kind of relaxation. The Swedish or Esalen styles use gentler, rhythmic motions that have been shown to elevate oxytocin levels in animals. After the massage, you can test whether you feel more open to connection by calling or visiting with a friend.
"Monetary Sacrifice Among Strangers is Mediated by Endogenous Oxytocin Release after Physical Contact," is by Vera B. Morhenn, Jang Woo Park, Elisabeth Piper, Paul J. Zak, in Evolution and Human Behavior.