Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

The Dark Side of "The Love Hormone"

The Dark Side of "The Love Hormone"

Everyone loves oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter that functions as the body's internal "love drug." It has a reputation as the warmest, fuzziest chemical around. As I've written about earlier, oxytocin can moderate feelings of fear in social settings. But it does much more than that. Apart from a rather extensive list of functions in sexual reproduction, childbirth, and breastfeeding, oxytocin affects how mammals behave towards one another. In one famous experiment, for instance, subjects were found to behave in a more trusting manner after inhaling a dose of oxytocin-laced nasal drops.

But not all of oxytocin's effects are so delightful.

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Experiments with rats have shown that increased levels of oxytocin can lead, in certain circumstances, to heightened aggression. And a recent experiment carried out at the University of Haifa in Israel has found some not-so-pleasant effects in humans as well. Subjects were given doses of nasal spray that contained either oxytocin or a placebo, and asked to play a computer game against a fellow test-subject. Actually, for the sake of experimental consistency, there was no other player - the subjects were playing against a computer. The interesting result was that subjects who had taken oxytocin gloated more when they won, and were more envious when they lost, than controls were.

It seems, explains researcher Simone Shamay-Tsoory, that oxytocin somehow helps to engage a person's social drive, for better or for worse. "When the person's association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments," she says.

Once again, the truth about a brain chemical turns out to be a lot more complicated than newspaper and magazine headlines would suggest. To me, that's not a bad thing at all. If one thing's for sure, the brain is an incredibly complex machine, so the more complicated our explanations of its functions become, the more likely they are to be accurate.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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