Valentine’s day made me do it: write my last two articles about dating and love. It even made me interrupt my series on Neuroeconomics! And then I realised, why not write about love in the brain? It’s a nice enough segway back into the neurosciences. So, in this article, we are diving into what is happening in our brain when we fall in love. But mainly, how does our brain “trick” us into loving? Today is all about Oxytocin!
Love and Bonding Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It influences social interaction and sexual reproduction. It is often referred to as the “love hormone or “cuddle neurotransmitter.” The reason for this is quite easy: the more oxytocin you have released into your system, the more connected you feel to the person(s) you are with.
It sounds as if your brain is trying to trick you, but this is quite an important neurotransmitter. The increased bonding is really important when it comes to maternal attachment. Whether you are a man or a woman (or anything in between), imagine childbirth: it doesn’t seem very pleasant. In all honestly, it sounds gruesome, absolutely horrific. So how is it that women that just gave birth are still able to love the child that made them go through these horrors? Oxytocin. The cuddle neurotransmitter. This one chemical induced the bond between mother and the little monster.
It doesn’t stop there. Oxytocin is also important after childbirth. It continues to be present in sudden increases in the maternal system. Oxytocin increases maternal attachment to the child during breastfeeding, because that process isn’t exactly great for mothers either. Our biological and neurological make-up is designed to make sure we are bonded to our offspring.
Let’s take a few steps back from childbirth. Let’s look at the number one cause of pregnancy: intercourse and the behaviours leading up to it. When people hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase. It’s not just our own offspring we bond to, it can be any type of pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, and reaches peak levels during an orgasm. So quick tip: want someone to love you forever? Put in some serious effort and make them orgasm.
One drawback: this effect is stronger for women than men. Why? Because nature is a bitch. Excuse the language. From an evolutionary perspective, men are supposed to increase their chances of offspring, to continue their bloodline. As a result, they need to have a lot of sex with different reproductive partners. As such, their bonding to an individual partner is not helped by oxytocin. For women however, it is. This is so that once she has had intercourse (and hopefully orgasmed…), she is increasingly bonded to this man. This makes her less likely to have sex with other men, and as such her first sexual partner has increased security of the offspring being his. So, he doesn’t end up taking care of offspring that isn’t his. Because God forbid, that’d be awful… Nature is sexist, I’m not.
Now let’s exclude sex. Because you can have oxytocin releases for your (platonic) closest friends and family too. That’s because oxytocin also underlies individual and social trust. The more oxytocin is (re-)released when I’m with you, the closer I judge you to be to me, and the more I trust you. It makes me feel good to be with you as a result. This is why it is often advised to be with people that are close to you when you’re experiencing feelings of low mood and depression: oxytocin is an antidote to these depressive feelings.
From Love to Exclusion For all its positivity, however, oxytocin has a dark side. Let’s get less intense: oxytocin is a bit more complex than being a hormone that makes you cuddle everything and everyone around you. As mentioned, it increases trust. This is actually incredibly complicated and part of this complexity comes, again, from evolution. We are more likely to bond, experience increases in oxytocin levels, towards people who are like us: those who share similar characteristics to us. They become our, what is known in social psychology as “in-group.”
Nothing wrong with having an in-group. This ensured our survival centuries ago. Like a really long time ago. But what does it do now? Well, it sets in motion favouritism toward in-group members. But these processes come at a cost: if we prefer one to the other, we discriminate against the other. Oxytocin makes us (more) prejudiced against those in out-groups. I’m not blaming oxytocin for racism, but it does induce prejudice, which is something to be aware of. The cuddle neurotransmitter need not be so lovely at all.
So what can we do with oxytocin? It’s a hormone turned neurotransmitter which has its uses from an evolutionary perspective, but in contemporary society makes things just a tad more complicated. It’s important for social, sexual and maternal bonding. It increases trust, but sometimes that’s the opposite from what we want. As a woman, be aware that it’s your brain that’s falling in love after sex, you don’t have to. As a man, if you want to increase your chances of bonding with a woman, make her orgasm. There you go.
Another tip: when doing research into the effects or inducement of oxytocin release, you can skip the studies on increasing oxytocin levels through nasal sprays: that stuff doesn’t replicate.
Next article we are moving from love and trust to happiness, or lack thereof. We are diving into serotonin and what you can do about being depressed. So stay tuned!