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Tweet the Monkey

  • 09:03 Reading about how the brain responds to advertising. Lots of exciting new research. Ads are as "real" as anything else. #
  • 10:41 Stanford is recruiting for a study of oxytocin functioning in kids with ASD. #
  • 10:44 @jenniferedwards thanks for McGill study on how childhood abuse alters the brain. Yes, later love can alter it again. yay neuroplasticity #
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I Heart Pepsi

I have a theory that advertising and brand messages can evoke the oxytocin response in us humans. This hasn't been validated by science yet, but it makes sense. Sociologists talk about parasocial relationships, that is, relationships with people we haven't actually met, such as celebrities or fictional characters.

Fans express their desire and love for characters in TV shows in the same way as they might talk about a real person, and they sometimes cry real tears over fictional events. So why would their love be less real -- or less oxytocin-producing?

I ran across this December 2008 article in Science Daily that provides another piece of evidence. Vanitha Swaminathan, Karen M. Stilley (University of Pittsburgh), and Rohini Ahluwalia (University of Minnesota) found that someone's attachment style influenced their reactions to brands.

The kind of bond we have with our mother -- the way our oxytocin response forms -- depends on how she treats us. We then tend to apply the mode of loving we learned from her to our future relationships. Psychologists group them into three or four "attachment styles."

From the article:

According to the authors, anxiously attached individuals are more influenced by "brand personalities," the idea that a brand possesses humanlike traits, such as sincerity or excitement. "Because of a low view of self, anxious individuals use brands to signal their ideal self-concept to future relationship partners and therefore focus more on the personality of the brand," the authors write.

What this says to me indirectly is that our attachment to a brand uses the same brain circuits and neurochemistry as our attachment to another human. So brand loyalty is a kind of love that's as real as any other.

Neuropeptide Y: The Oxytocin Alternative?

When we need to defend ourselves or escape from danger, the fight-or-flight reaction kicks in. Cortisol and noradrenaline reduce circulation to the extremities, raise blood pressure, increase energy and attention, and reduce the pain response. This state gives us the best shot at staying alive.

But this state has a downside: You get the shakes, and you may not be able to think clearly, for example, fleeing, when you'd do better standing your ground.  Soldiers have to learn how to make these decisions and to master their fear enough to do battle in the first place. Why are some people able to perform acts of bravery, or to do the right thing under extreme stress?

Deanne Aikins of Yale found higher levels of a neuropeptide -- a brain chemical -- that dampens the body's stress response in some highly resilient individuals. Aikins studied soldiers undergoing survival training, and she found that the coolest heads had the highest levels of neuropeptide y.

Scientists have known about the stress-reduction effects of neuropeptide y for quite some time, and there was a lot of interest in it as a weight-loss aid. Aikins may be the first to link it to  bravery.

From Eureka Science News:

Deane Aikins, a psychiatrist at Yale University, said the remarkable composure of US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who made an emergency landing on the Hudson river last month, showed how well some people can cope with extremely stressful situations. The pilot's actions led to headlines referring to "grace under pressure" – Hemingway's description of heroism."I think some people are born with it," Aikins said. "We would all be ready to scream in our chairs, but there are certain individuals who just don't get as stressed."

My friend Neal sent me a link to the Reuters story saying, "this sounds like anti-oxytocin." I think it sounds more like an oxytocin alternative.

In addition to its role in positive social interactions, oxytocin calms the body down and counteracts the stress response. Usually this happens in times of safety; however, Stephen Porges says oxytocin also creates the freeze-and-hide strategy that prey mammals like rabbits often use.

It would be interesting to know whether there's a relationship between neuropeptide y and vasopressin and/or testosterone.  I wonder if neuropeptide y contributes to the impulse for males to stand and fight to protect the family. When a breeding mammal pair is attacked, the offspring have no chance of survival if the mother dies, while the male is more expendable.

The male's higher levels of testosterone make him more aggressive -- and also mute oxytocin's impulse to huddle in the nest. Vasopressin, a neurochemical very similar to oxytocin, seems to be central to male bonding while increasing guarding and defending behavior. Maybe neuropeptide y is another piece of this behavior.

No,  I AM NOT saying women can't be brave, okay?

Welcoming an Older Adopted Child

I came across Adopting the Older Child, a terrific blog from Robin Hayes, a psychologist and the mother of three children, two of whom were adopted at around four years old.

In a post on helping new siblings learn to get along, she outlines steps in a program to make sure that they have time to get used to each other and accept each other, without beginning to re-enact abuse or trauma.

For example, as the kids get used to each other, she advises:

Over time, build on success. Slowly extend the allotted time for play. When they can play successfully for about 20 minutes one-on-one, add one 10 minute session where all the children play together, supervised by an engaged, involved parent.  Again, keep it positive and end on a happy note.

In the past, adoptive parents were often not given much information about attachment and behavior issues that children might suffer from, let alone clear directions on how to deal with them.

Robin is a heroine to me for welcoming into her family older, hard-to-place kids. I always thought that if the time came for me to have kids, I would adopt one with medical problems; that as a society, we should only adopt until all the orphanages were empty. (The time to have a family never came for me.) But Robin is doing it.