Oxytocin Not Always So Goody-Goody
Did Nature Design Women to Be Social Leaders?

The Oxytocin Gap

I'm reposting a reply I made to Gila's thoughtful and interesting question: If neuroplasticy lets the brain change, couldn't the pain of broken premarital relationships weaken or harm the oxytocin response?

You raise good questions, Gila. Certainly, neuroplasticity goes both ways. The example of an adult who develops PTSD following a traumatic experience is a good example of negative live experiences causing a change for the worst.

Can broken premarital relationships adversely affect the oxytocin response? I think it is possible. You could think of the oxytocin response as a habit, a learned response to stimuli. Certainly habits can be broken or changed. When we encounter a painful stimulus, we learn to avoid it in the future.

That said, Dr. Keroack's theory seemed to be more that the oxytocin response could be used up: Bond with too many people before marriage and your marriage bond won't be as strong. This really does not make sense. If you can love, you can love many people. Your oxytocin doesn't get used up when you have your first child, for example.

I agree with you that there is a hormonal -- or neurochemical -- explanation for some women's and men's ability to hook up without feeling bonded.

During the first three years of life, our brains undergo rapid and intense development, with patterns laid down that tend to stay with us throughout our lives. They certainly can be modified and changed later, but it's much harder to change a neurochemical habit formed as a baby than one formed as an adult.

The oxytocin response, which I define as the release of oxytocin into the social centers of the brain in response to physical and emotional stimuli, is one such habit. In order for a baby to learn to release oxytocin in times of safety and intimacy, she needs to have a close physical connection with one primary person; she needs to be mothered, whether by her biological mother or another person.

So many things in our society make it difficult to provide this: medicalized birth that can overdose the baby with artificial oxytocin, possibly making her brain less sensitive to it; the need or desire of both parents to get back to work quickly; understaffed daycare centers; our distracted, multitasking lifestyle; and our general lack of awareness about what a baby needs.

I think that many of us become adults without a strong and healthy oxytocin response. I don't think you can successfully work as a prostitute if you have a strong oxytocin response, it would be too painful.

I think the hookup culture we're seeing now may be a reflection of a widespread inability to bond, for all these reasons. You could call it the oxytocin gap.

It should be noted, there is wide variation among individuals, and, nurture and early brain development aside, it's likely that some individuals never will bond strongly. In the monogamous prairie vole, for examples, small variations in the gene for vasopressin, an oxytocin-like molecule, seem to cause some males to not form pair-bonds.

Some background on the Keroack kerfluffle, in case you've forgotten: In 2006, President Bush appointed Eric Keroack to oversee Health and Human Services, and there was a lot of discussion of Keroack's theory that premarital sex could sort of use up your oxytocin supply. Rebecca Turner, the scientist on whose work he based that theory, repudiated his conclusions.

Here is what Dr. Turner said about Dr. Keroack's statements: "Due to concerns about health and emotional development, I certainly would not promote the idea that teenagers should engage in multiple sexual relationships. However, the cautions we give to teens should be based on honest concerns about health and values, not misinformation such as the statement that they will never be able to bond with a partner or have loving attachments in later life. In fact, other research by colleagues in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at UCSF* implies that teens are more likely to heed advice when it is seen as believable."