Cerebral Vortex

This is your brain on people.

Oxytocin Revisited

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Genes

Oxytocin is having an identity crisis. With widespread targets throughout the body and the brain, a wealth of studies in animals and humans have shown that oxytocin administration can promote pair bonding, generosity, trust, the ability to read others' emotions, eye contact, and calm the emotional responses of the body and brain.  In addition, natural oxytocin levels have been shown to relate to romantic love, parent-child bonding and empathy and subsequent generosity towards strangers. As a result of all this, oxytocin has been dubbed the "love" or "cuddle" hormone by popular media. So let's give all the jerks and sociopaths in the world some heavy doses of oxytocin! Right? That should fix many of the world's problems.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Not so fast. As it turns out, it's not that simple.Oxytocin may be a social lubricant in some scenarios, but it has also been shown to produce some very un-PC  emotional states, such as favoring of one's in-group at the expense of an out-group, ethnocentrism, envy, and gloating. To make matters even more complicated, individual differences in attachment anxiety will dictate whether oxytocin brings up good or bad memories of one's mother.

Therefore, oxytocin bombs will not result in world peace. Instead, oxytocin should be thought of as a hormone/neurotransmitter that fine-tunes our social processing. Sometimes it brings us together, sometimes it tears us apart.

Our understanding of individuals differences in the oxytocin system has been expanded by various researchers investigating how genetic variations of the oxytocin system influence social and emotional states and traits. 

I carry two copies of the A allele for the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) polymorphism rs53576. Literature suggests that compared to the G allele carriers, folks with my genotype are more likely to possess very emotional brains, develop autism, display higher stress reactivity and depressive symptoms, and exhibit lower empathy, self-esteem, optimism, parental sensitivity, and social auditory processing.  To make matters worse for my sinking boat, our research group has recently reported that individuals who are homozygous for the G allele are judged by outside observers to express more prosocial behaviors when listening to their romantic partner discuss a time of suffering*. 

(*Admittedly, our sample size was quite small for this most recent paper, but it was the most we could gather from this particular study since our research team is now scattered across many universities.  We would have loved nothing more than a bigger N!  Nevertheless, we found our results to be quite interesting and wanted to share them.  Our confidence in our findings is fortified by complementary data from our group and others on many hundreds of individuals and the fact that the results from our current study are context-dependent.  Thus, we view these findings as preliminary and hope that we and others can flesh out this story in follow-up studies.)

Let's make note that there is no such thing as an "empathy gene" or "kindness gene."  All of our personalities are colored by many genes and life experiences.  It is foolish to think that one gene is completely responsible for complex social traits.  However, as many research groups have shown, it makes sense that a tweak in the single gene coding for oxytocin's lone receptor would be related to a variety of emotional and social profiles.

I confess that I was completely distraught when I discovered that I have a genetic predisposition to develop all kinds of undesirable traits, but out of this I have developed some self-compassion.  I have a better understanding of why certain experiences have caused me develop more a more severe case of the blues, social anxiety, and withdrawal.  I also know that having an amazing family and group of friends coaxed me out of my hole of solitude.  Everything depends on the context and how comfortable we feel in our genes.  I clam up in some situations and can't stop talking in others.  Along the same lines, some social venues cause me to feel quite anxious and make embarrassing vocal tics emerge, while others make me feel quite at home and at ease. 

So, should all of us in the A team be forced to live in exile so the G team can be left alone to relish in all their wonderful traits? I know many of you are probably nodding, but again, it's not that cut-and-dry. Trust me when I say that many people in the A team are extraordinarily warm and compassionate. In fact, I would claim that some are hyperempathetic. We A types don't need fixing, just understanding. 

Moreover, it turns out that OXTR rs53576 is sensitive to culture norms and social environment, and as a result, yields a culturally-divergent pattern on emotional support seeking, emotional suppression, and even the relationship between religion and well-being. Yes, certain ethnicities have evolved to have more of the A allele than others, but let's refrain from making generalizations, mmmmkay? Our brains want to lump everything in to black and white categories, but I hope that I am conveying to you that life isn't that simple, nor is oxytocin story.  It is important to wise up and see all the exciting shades of gray out there in the human condition. Evolutionary changes are adaptive and so it is not productive or smart to think of these as good or bad. There are many societal advantages to processing hormonal cues in a context-specific manner.

It is my dream that the scientific community will continue to develop tools to help others who get trapped by their emotions by understanding what can make everyone feel good and be good to others, regardless of the hands we're dealt by genes and life.  Everyone and anyone would benefit from a little compassion and a sincere hug.

I end with a plea for all you normal people to create a soft spot for us misfits.  Don't feel sorry for those of us who struggle with social anxiety, eye contact, and getting sucked inward.  Instead, try to lay off the snark, stink eye, and judgment and recognize that we all come from a different place and we all have our unique set of obstacles (yes, even you G allele folks).  Plus, genetic diversity makes the world a much more interesting place.  This earth would be extremely boring if we all acted and looked the same.  Imagine if we were all loudmouths!  Who would do the listening?  Thank goodness for Mother Nature's tweaks!  I think most people would agree that it would suck if every dog on the planet was a Chihuahua.  Poodles, Terriers, Labradors, Pomeranians, etc. make existence more exciting and colorful, and different types of people sure make this globe a helluva lot more fascinating. 

So, don't hate....celebrate differences.

 

Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Psychology at Oregon State University.

more...

Subscribe to Cerebral Vortex

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.