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March 2010
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Inhaling Oxytocin Can Make a Man More Like a Woman

At least, when it comes to empathy.

Two experiments by Dr. René Hurlemann of Bonn University´s Clinic for Psychiatry showed that inhaling oxytocin made men respond more emotionally. In the first experiment, men inhaled oxytocin or placebo and then looked at photos of things like a girl hugging a cat and a grieving man. Then, they were asked to rate their depth of feeling.

The men who had inhaled oxytocin reached the same levels of feeling that women usually report.

In a second experiment, men and women performed an observation test on the computer. They got feedback either in the form of a red or green circle, or an approving face. Learning was better among all test subjects when they got approval from a person. But those who had gotten an extra dose of oxytocin showed a stronger response. 

This is certainly not the first study showing that oxytocin increases empathy. In 2007, neuroscientists at Rostock University found the same effect.

If you want to test your empathy, try this online quiz: Reading the Mind in the Eyes.

What Should Boobs Be For?

Despite the pretty much incontrovertible evidence that breastfeeding is the best thing you can do for your baby, and despite all the public info campaigns, less than one-third of American babies enjoy the breast by three months of age.

In my new Psychology Today blog, I asked whether this was due to our culture's obsession with breasts as sexual signifiers. Do you want hot and perky boobs, or breasts that are soft and even stretch-marked -- plus a happy, healthy baby?

I just wish this was a no-brainer question. Please read the post at Psychology Today.

Is He a Cheater?

Paul Zak, the guy who showed that oxytocin affects all sorts of positive human emotions, as well inventing the field of neuroeconomics, posted five tests you can use to discover whether a man is likely to stay faithful.

The tests illuminate the relationship between oxytocin, vasopressin and testosterone. If that recipe isn't just right, a man's more likely to be a seed-scatterer than a bacon-bringing-homer.

They're smart, science-based, and most of them you can do yourself without the need for lab tests. I covered his post in the blog I write at, and I'm afraid that, in what is certainly recursive but necessary in this link-crazy world, I am cycling you through that in order to read his post. Is that too, too awful?

Williams Syndrome and Paul Zak on NPR

You probably heard this already, but ...

NPR did a really terrific story about oxytocin, trust and civilization. It started with a little girl with Williams syndrome, something I had not heard of.

According to the Williams Syndrome Foundation, "Individuals with Williams syndrome have a very endearing personality. They have a unique strength in their expressive language skills, and are extremely polite. They are typically unafraid of strangers and show a greater interest in contact with adults than with their peers."

Unfortunately, this is only one of multiple health problems caused by this syndrome.

Although it makes sense that the excessive friendliness and trust are the result of "excess oxytocin," in fact, there are no studies showing that this is the case, or how the oxytocin system is involved.

You can read and listen here:

Spanking Teaches Kids to Hit

A new study found that spanking toddlers makes for more aggressive kindergartners.

As ABC News reports, three-year-olds who are spanked are more likely to bully, hit and engage in destructive or aggressive behavior.

The article quotes experts who say it's a simple case of modeling behavior: Your kids imitate your actions for better or worse. Digging down to the neurological level, between two and three years old is the time when the hippocampus is undergoing a growth spurt. Among other things, the hippocampus processes memories before they go into deep storage. In the memory store, they act as a sort of data bank that lets the brain compare stimuli coming in through the senses to previous experience in order to react appropriately.

So, it may be as simple as, "Anger? Hit!" Or, the spanking may have made the hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal system, which reacts to stress, more reactive, leading to a stronger and more violent response.

Why Dad Should Be in the Delivery Room

Ann Douglas at The Mother of All Parenting Blogs talks about the special challenge of taking her 12-year-old son with Asperger's to the orthodontist.

Her husband was the one who took their son for the dreaded extraction, and Douglas credits the strong father/son bond to the moments right after delivery, when he held the newborn in his arms while she got stitches. 

I strongly disagree with the idea that men should be barred from the delivery room because they'll make the laboring woman too tense.

Oxytocin Spray Helps Adolescents with ASD

A new study found that inhaling oxytocin once a week for two weeks helped adolescents understand facial expressions.  Adam Guastella, of the Brain & Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, led the experiment.

Eric Hollander and Jennifer Bartz did the first studies of oxytocin as a treatment for symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. They gave it intravenously to adults, and found improvements in the ability to recognize the emotional content of speech improved for up to two weeks after treatment.

A French study of adults found the same improvement when adults with autism inhaled oxytocin. This is the first study of adolescents. It's possible that oxytocin could help them improve their ability to read social cues, and that the effect could last their lifetimes.

Guastella has been studying the effects of oxytocin on humans without diagnosed disorders. He's found that men who inhale oxytocin tend to remember photos of smiling faces more than those who haven't had a dose. He's also tested whether oxytocin could make couples more open during psychotherapy.
He has grants to test oxytocin as a therapy for schizophrenia and Prader-Willi Syndrome, as well.

Breastfeeding Could Save 1,000 Babies Per Year

A study in Pediatrics says that breastfeeding babies for the first six months could save 1,000 lives and billions of dollars per year.

According to CNN

"The United States incurs $13 billion in excess costs annually and suffers 911 preventable deaths per year because our breastfeeding rates fall far below medical recommendations," the report said.

Study co-author Melissa Bartick blames the United States' low rates of breastfeeding on hospitals, which don't do enough to encourage women to breastfeed. Moreover, they often delay or omit altogether placing the baby in skin-to-skin contact with the mother, a practice that stimulates the newborn's natural instinct to nurse.

Rewriting Parenting for Kids with RAD and ODD - Free Webinar

Bryan Post is a psychologist who does ground-breaking work with families of kids who have severe behavior problems, mostly as the result of early trauma from adoption or spending time in the foster system. 

His approach takes into account the dynamics of the whole family, recognizing that a parent's anger or inability to connect can further traumatize the child. Post was himself an adopted and disruptive child. Now, at the Post Institute for Family-Centered Therapy and in workshops around the country, he helps parents learn to provide the brain-shaping experiences their children missed.

Bryan thinks that a parent's own attachment issues can get in the way of seeing that a child's out-of-control behavior comes from fear, not, as it often seems, from maliciousness, defiance, or an evil nature.  Once parents can remove their own fears from the relationship, it's easier for them to heal the child's fear. Sessions with parents begin with whatever behaviors or problems seem most critical to them. While the end goal certainly is to help the child develop into a loving, happy, and responsible member of the family, these first steps are as much about guiding the parents into a deeper understanding of themselves.In interviewed Bryan and included his work in my book. Since then, his model has evolved to include the new science of oxytocin and bonding. In fact, he and I are collaborating on a new book, tentatively titled Oxytocin Parenting.

Whether you are parent to a child who's been diagnosed with a disorder like RAD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, or are looking for a better way to parent, Bryan has practical approaches that help you create better bonds with your children -- which leads to better behavior and a happier home.You can learn how to use the new science of oxytocin and attachment to help your kid in a free webinar next Thursday, April 8, at 9 p.m. EDT. To reserve your spot, register at

Bryan is an inspiring, emotional teacher. Joining him will be Helene Timpone, LCSW, who's an expert in parenting teen-aged girls. I highly recommend this event. And I'm honored that they will feature my book. 

Loneliness Takes a Toll on Health

I posted an article on Family Goes Strong, a new blog network I'm writing for, about two studies showing how a lack of social support -- scientist-speak for love, affection and friendship, all the oxytocin goodies -- correlates with higher blood pressure and more difficulty controlling diabetes.

The study by Louise Hawkley of University of Chicago compared people's self-reported experience of loneliness with the blood pressure, finding that less perceived support translated to rising blood pressure. Hawkley's work is in my book, and I've written about my visit to her lab

The second study, by Paul Ciechanowski of the University of Washington, correlated the ability to maintain general health in people with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes to social support. It makes sense that having people around you who care about you would make it easier to do the good stuff, like exercising and taking your medicine, while avoiding the bad stuff, like eating too many carbs.

What I didn't mention in the Family Goes Strong article was the link I see between loneliness, the lack of oxytocin-based interactions, and high blood pressure. Oxytocin is the anti-cortisol; it lowers blood pressure and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for relaxation, rest and healing.

Hawkley's other studies have linked loneliness to higher cortisol levels, which are responsible for higher blood pressure and can lead to heart disease. You could also look at this state as not enough oxytocin.

Even those of us who are good at connecting may find ourselves in periods where we're far away from friends, family or lover. It's important in times of loneliness to remember to do lots of the other things that can activate the oxytocin system, including massage, cuddling with pets, group activities that put us in synch (limbic resonance) with others, even shaking hands.