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November 2008
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January 2009

Intelligent Love and the Shaky Bridge Theory

SmIntelligentLoveLogo Joy Nordenstrom- is CEO of Intelligent Love, a website and videocast series designed to explain the science of love to men, with the aim of helping them be better partners and find the love they want.

Her video shorts are smart and easy to consume. In one, she explains how arousal can lead to falling in love; she bases this on a study in which men who were crossing a shaky bridge were more likely to take the phone number of an attractive woman who stopped them mid-stream.  Worth checking out the rest of them here: Intelligent Love vodcasts.

Let Us Elevate Together

At this time of the year, most of us are celebrating something, whether a religious holiday, the winter solstice, or just a new calendar year to look forward to. In the States, the relentless holiday cheer can be overwhelming. But there can be real emotion behind it: an emotion becoming famous recently as elevation.

Elevation, according to University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is feelings of hope, inspiration and connectedness, but not with another person. Rather, with an idea, an ideal or a leader. An interesting experiment by Haidt shows that this emotion is also produced by oxytocin, probably acting via the vagus nerve. (The vagus is also involved in satisfaction from food and sex.)

Haidt brought lactating women and their babies to his lab and showed them a video of either a Seinfeld clip (the control) or an inspiring segment from The Oprah Winfrey Show. Half the mothers who watched Oprah either leaked breast milk or nursed their babies; none of the Seinfeld group did.

Elevation is discussed in a new book, Born to Be Good, by Dacher Keltner, which comes out in the next week or two. Keltner provides the vagus nerve connection.

From Emily Yoffe of Slate (by way of Mark Hemingway at the National Review):

Keltner believes certain people are "vagal superstars"—in the lab he has measured people who have high vagus nerve activity. "They respond to stress with calmness and resilience, they build networks, break up conflicts, they're more cooperative, they handle bereavement better." He says being around these people makes other people feel good. "I would guarantee Barack Obama is off the charts. Just bring him to my lab."

He says that oratory is a powerful way of inducing elevation, which is why a good speech can turn the audience into a unified group. Oxytocin and vagus nerve stimulation would seem to be behind the feelings we experience at political rallies, in church, at sports events and a variety of other group experiences.

It can be all too easy to snicker at other people's moments of elevation if we don't share their particular passion. Personally, I'm going to try during this season to find and honor elevation wherever I can.

"Season of Care" Is Good for Your Health

Another example of things we intuitively feel and science has finally proved. Taking care of someone else is good for your health, probably because caregiving releases oxytocin. This is something I put in my book without scientific backup.

The University of Michigan study by Stephanie Brown tracked the health and longevity of couples over 70  living together. (The article is by HealthDay News Service, reprinted on

... providing care for your spouse for more than 14 hours a week was associated with a significantly decreased risk of death compared to those who provided no spousal caregiving.

Brown said that she thinks the health benefit comes from reduced stress due to the release of oxytocin. They didn't test the couples' blood, so I guess this remains conjectural. I don't see why these health benefits wouldn't extend to someone taking care of an older relative, a horse, etc.

Fertility Makes Women Friendlier

... to men they don't know. Matthew kindly sent me this link to a New Scientist story.

Research led by Nicolas Guéguen of South Brittany University had attractive men approach women with a polite compliment and a request for their phone numbers.  It shouldn't surprise us that women were much more willing to comply when their were fertile.

Women not on birth control pills were even more likely to hand out their phone numbers to strange men during their fertile cycle.

Ah, Mother Nature!

Oxytocin Benefits of Massage Extend to Masseur

I just found a fascinating post by Paul Zak, the world's top expert in humans and oxytocin. He writes about his correspondence with a woman seeking oxytocin therapy for her daughter, who has extreme social anxiety.

When Zak mentioned his work showing that massage could increase oxytocin levels and generosity in people who received a 15-minute massage, the woman told him that her daughter had quit her job to become a massage therapist.

See also my post Finally! Massage Increases Oxytocin.

Aussie Study of Oxytocin for Autism

A study is under way in Australia to see whether regular inhalation of oxytocin can improve the ability of people with ASD to recognize faces and respond more appropriately in social interactions, according to an article in The Australian.

The Centre for Autism Research, Education and Service (CARES), funded by the National Health Service, is giving 20 men aged 12 to 20 oxytocin inhalants to use at home. The article doesn't mention whether they will sniff at will or at regular intervals. My guess is it would work better if they inhaled the oxytocin right before social interactions, but it would be easier to standardize the experiment if they took regular doses.

Stewart Einfeld, who as well as being co-director of CARES with Tonge is also head of child development research at the BMRI, sounds a note of caution, saying while he is "confident" that oxytocin will improve symptoms, it remains to be seen whether that necessarily flows on to a meaningful improvement in patients' lives.

"It's one thing to say that the capacity to understand emotions is improved in an experimental setting," Einfeld says. "It's another thing to say that as a consequence, they are functioning better and are able to get better jobs or are living more independently. You can't be predicting too many long-term benefits until you have done the work."

The study is led by Adam Guastella, who also is working on using oxytocin to improve communication during couples therapy.