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Oxytocin, Spirituality, and the Biology of Feeling Connected

Oxytocin may help men feel a sense of spiritual connectedness, wonder, and awe.

Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock
Source: Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

A fascinating new study from Duke University reports a correlation between receiving an intranasal dose of oxytocin and feeling a sense of connection to some type of Higher Power. The oxytocin (OT) system plays a central role in all types social bonding but operates slightly differently in men than it does in women. Colloquially, oxytocin is referred to as the “love molecule” or “cuddle hormone.”

After receiving oxytocin, the midlife male participants in this study—who carried OT-related genotypes critical for OT signaling—displayed increased spirituality and described feeling a sense of awe or being interconnected to some larger Source.

The September 2016 study, “Effects of Oxytocin Administration on Spirituality and Emotional Responses to Meditation,” appears in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Typically, oxytocin is considered beneficial to mental health due to its prosocial ability to foster social connectivity. What makes this study unique is that it focuses on feelings of connectedness or bonding with some type of entity in the universe that feels much bigger than oneself. I know, it's easy to dismiss this type of language as new-agey or woo-woo. However, this study offers intriguing empirical evidence that there is some type of neurobiological link between oxytocin and spiritual connection.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first study to provide scientific evidence that a sense of spirituality appears to be supported by oxytocin. Again, the researchers emphasize that the findings of this study focused only on men. The effect of oxytocin on women’s spirituality may also occur but this still needs to be investigated in a laboratory setting.

Results of the Duke study showed that intranasal OT increased self-reported spirituality on two separate measures. This effect remained significant a week later. Oxytocin also boosted participants’ experience of specific positive emotions during meditation, on both explicit and implicit levels.

In a statement, Patty Van Cappellen, associate director of the Interdisciplinary and Behavioral Research Center at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute and lead author of this study said,

“Spirituality and meditation have each been linked to health and well-being in previous research. We were interested in understanding biological factors that may enhance those spiritual experiences. Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs.”

Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and occurs naturally in the body. It can act as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, affecting many regions of the body and brain. Oxytocin production is stimulated during intimate physical contact, sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

A wide-range of recent studies have highlighted oxytocin’s potential ability to promote empathy, trust, social bonding, and altruism. That said, oxytocin also has a potential dark side. Under certain circumstances, oxytocin can hardwire fear-based memories associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To test how oxytocin might influence spirituality, the Duke researchers administered the hormone to one group of men and a placebo to another. Those who received oxytocin were more likely to say afterward that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has "meaning and purpose." This was true regardless of whether or not the participant reported having faith in a particular organized religion.

Participants who received oxytocin were also more inclined to view themselves as interconnected with other people and living things. They gave higher ratings to statements such as “All life is interconnected” and “There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people.”

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

The participants in this study were also taken through a guided meditation. Those who received oxytocin reported experiencing more positive emotions during this meditation. The adjectives used to describe their emotions during the meditation included: "awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, love, and serenity."

There is an important caveat to these findings. Oxytocin did not affect all participants equally. Its effect on spirituality was stronger among those with a particular variant of the CD38 gene. According to the researchers, this particular gene regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain.

Ecstasy In Secular and Religious Experiences

When I first read about the new study by Van Cappellen and colleagues at Duke, I was immediately reminded of research conducted in the mid-20th century on peak experiences and transcendental ecstasies in secular and religious experiences by Marghanita Laski. In 1961, Laski published a seminal book based on these findings, Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experience.

In researching this book, professor Laski created a survey to identify and isolate when people described feeling an ecstatic sense of connection or oneness with a spiritual “Source.” Respondents to Laski's survey used a variety of phrases that echo the new Duke terminology used to describe feelings of awe and spiritual connectedness. Laski's participants used the following descriptions and phrases to describe secular ecstasy:

"A sense of the oneness of things, you understand that everything in reality is connected to one thing ... I saw nothing and everything ... All the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony ... I saw and knew the being of all things in that moment ... The inner and outer meaning of the earth and sky and all that is in them ... I fit exactly ... I saw the Divine universe is a living presence in everything.”

Laski was a journalist and researcher who was fascinated with the ecstatic experiences described throughout the ages by mystical, spiritual, and religious writers. In the 1950s, Martin Buber published Eclipse of God which points out that the realities of modern life might inherently destroy the opportunity for intimacy and connection with an eternal, ever-present Source, or what he referred to as 'direct contact with the Divine.' In many ways, Laski's work responded to these observations.

Laski did extensive research within the general population to deconstruct what the experience of ecstasy and awe felt like in modern everyday life. She also pinpointed a vernacular that vividly describes this phenomena. In my opinion, the latest Duke findings dovetail beautifully with Laski's research from over a half century ago.

For her research, Laski created a questionnaire that surveyed people on feelings of spirituality and connectedness with questions such as, “Do you know a sensation of transcendent ecstasy? How would you describe it?”

After analyzing the data, Laski classified an experience as an “ecstasy” if it contained two of the three following descriptions: "unity, eternity, heaven, new life, satisfaction, joy, salvation, perfection, glory; contact, new or mystical knowledge; and at least one of the following feelings: loss of difference, time, place, of worldliness... or feelings of calm, peace.”

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Marghanita Laski found that the most common triggers for transcendental ecstasies come from nature. In particular, her survey revealed that water, mountains, trees, and flowers; dusk, sunrise, sunlight; dramatically bad weather and spring were often a catalyst for feeling ecstatic in a secular but spiritual way.

Laski hypothesized that feelings of ecstasy were a psychological and emotional response that was hardwired into our human biology. The new findings from Duke on a correlation between oxytocin and feelings of spiritual connectedness advance our understanding of the neurobiological underpinnings of this phenomenon.

Spirituality Is Universal, Complex, and Multifaceted

Van Cappellen cautions that her new findings should not be over-generalized. First of all, she emphasizes that there are many definitions of spirituality. “Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” Van Cappellen said. “However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

When was the last time you were overcome with a sense of awe, feeling of transcendent ecstasy, or deep spiritual connectedness? For me, these events and "wow!" moments almost always occur in nature. As an example, I took this snapshot of the sky above with my phone (and no filter) a few years ago while having dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Provincetown.

To this day, seeing this image triggers a visceral response and reminds me that there is a mystical Source of energy in the universe that I can feel tethered to during everyday life if I keep my antennae up and the channel to my parasympathetic nervous system open. Again, you don't have to be a religious zealot or some type of spiritual guru to have transcendental and ecstatic feelings of connectedness between your own biology and the world around you.

I first discovered a spiritual connection to something bigger than me as a nine year old riding my horse, Commander, through the cornfields of rural Pennsylvania...not in the Mennonite church that was behind the apple orchard outside our limestone farmhouse. But, in 1975, there was clearly some type of symbiotic correlation between going to Sunday school, singing Cat Stevens songs, and connecting with nature for me at this formative age.

Later in life as an ultra-endurance athlete, I learned how to tap into an infinite Source of power held in nature that was like rocket fuel. As an Ironman triathlete, my stamina to run, bike, and swim unfathomable distances seemed to manifest when I became a conduit for an infinite source of energy outside of my body that I would stay tethered to like an umbilical cord. In The Athlete's Way: Sweat and Biology of Bliss, I describe the metaphysical and sometimes isolating aspects of this supernatural experience,

"Instead of connecting intimately to other humans, I had an ongoing love affair with “the other.” I hate to admit it, but yes, I am a spiritual person, although I am not into the New Age jargon surrounding spirituality. I find it difficult not to feel a religious or mystical aspect to the athletic process.

Through sport, I find connections to an outside force inside my own biology—and I connect to that source in other living creatures and nature. This has been my fuel since the beginning. I believe that feeling connected to “God” through sport is directly linked to the electrochemical environment of my brain, but that doesn’t make it any less of a mystical experience."

My capacity to break Guinness World Records and win the Triple Ironman by swimming 7.2 miles, biking 336 miles, and running 78.6 miles in 38 non-stop hours was always more about my ability to connect my own biology to an infinite Source of energy than my athletic prowess.

From years of practicing meditation at ashrams in India and at Hampshire College in the 1980s, I learned how to create a state of 'super flow' in which my mind, body, and brain seemed to function without any friction or viscosity. Achieving this state of consciousness was my secret to winning races in the decades that followed. I had to give this state a name. So, I came up with the term superfluidity, which is a concept I borrowed from the world of physics.

I don't identify with any particular organized religion. However, the concepts of Transcendentalism spearheaded by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the early-19th century—and summed up in his in 1836 essay Nature—have resonated with me on a spiritual level since I was a college student. Among the transcendentalists' core beliefs was the philosophy that a dogma-free type of spirituality could be found in your personal connection to Nature.

Wikimedia Commons/Publich Domain
John Muir c. 1902
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Publich Domain

Although it's speculative, one of the most exciting takeaways from the Duke study linking oxytocin and spiritual connectedness is the idea that Nature can embody a tangible entity that you bond with in an intimate way. Anecdotal evidence of this dynamic can be found in the writings of John Muir (the well-known naturalist, environmentalist, essayist, and co-founder of the Sierra Club) who wrote extensively about his ongoing love affair with the wilderness more than a century ago. William Anderson once said that Muir exemplified "the archetype of our oneness with the earth." Biographer Donald Worster believed that Muir's mission was "...saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism."

Along these lines, there were many popular musicians in the later-20th century who were simpatico with Muir's spiritual connection to nature and brought these ideas to a mainstream audience via pop music.

For example, as I was growing up in the early 1970s, the music of John "thank god I'm a country boy" Denver was constantly in heavy rotation on AM radio and the 8-track inside my family's Chevy station wagon. Denver's romance with nature often personifies the great outdoors as a type of lover that he's bonding with. I have a hunch this could be occurring via an uptick in oxytocin.

Although John Denver songs can seem kind of hokey today, many of his love songs seem to be written to nature in the third person as an entity that is a catalyst for being born again in a secular, Transcendentalist way. Interestingly, Denver's lyrics echo the adjectives used by participants in Laski's research on ecstasies and Van Cappellen's latest study at Duke University.

Hearing songs like "Rocky Mountain High" still have the power to trigger a spiritual connection with nature even decades later as I'm sitting in a sterile work environment under fluorescent lights (such as right now) writing this blog post.

Another example of 'connecting with the Divine' in nature occurs in the song "Rhymes and Reasons" (which John Denver wrote in the shower). In this song, he sings of specific elements of nature (flowers, desert, mountains) as a direct Source of inspiration that he connects with on a personal level in a way that seems to trigger transcendental clarity and ecstasy.

Cat Stevens' Greatest Hits and his spiritual anthems about connecting with nature, such as "Morning Has Broken," are also classic 1970s examples that capture the essence of the feeling of awe when you connect deeply with nature and your ego seems to dissolve.

As a parent, I've decided to occasionally play the singer-songwriter nature-loving music of the 1970s in the background with hopes the message of this music will be absorbed through osmosis by my 8-year-old daughter. The blast from the past aspect of these songs seems like an antidote to the zeitgeist of living in a digital age.

Sherry Turkle poignantly reminds us in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, that the proliferation of smartphones, social media, and Facebook seem to exacerbate disconnection and isolation.

To a large degree, our digital devices keep us separated from nature and the living people and things around us. This problem seems to be snowballing out of control. It seems inevitable that in communities all around the world less oxytocin is being produced organically via face-to-face intimate connections. The rapid increase of urbanization is also creating a disconnection from nature we've never experienced in our human evolution.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote prophetically about the societal ramifications of modern technology in Future Shock, which is marked by too much change in too short a time. Based on the latest research on connection, it seems possible that one of the biological explanations for our minds and bodies short-circuiting in a digital age could be tied to the disconnection created by excessive screen time and chronically low levels of oxytocin. To be clear, this conclusion is speculative and conjecture on my part.

Conclusion: More Research Is Needed to Better Understand the Use of Intranasal Oxytocin

Another study from 2016, "Intranasal Oxytocin: Myths and Delusions," published in Biological Psychiatry concluded, "Effects of intranasal oxytocin also need proper dose-response studies, and such studies need to include control subjects for peripheral effects, by administering oxytocin peripherally and by blocking peripheral actions with antagonists." Clearly, we need more rigorous studies on oxytocin before drawing any concrete conclusions or begin recklessly prescribing OT.

That said, even without taking intranasal oxytocin, I'd like to believe creating daily practices and a mindset focused on promoting a sense of connection via meditation, physical activity outdoors, or viewing nature as an entity you can bond with might create an upward spiral of well-being and life-affirming feelings of connectedness. Based on the placebo effect, this system of belief could create a self-fulfilling prophecy of feeling more connected and trigger a chain reaction of producing more oxytocin naturally.

Throughout my lifespan, I've found that listening to songs that remind me of the power of connecting with nature like those mentioned above or "A Sense of Wonder" and "Into the Mystic" by Van Morrison can trigger secular feelings of spirituality. Simply listening to this music makes a visceral sense of connection a daily reality.

Although this advice is anecdotal, hopefully, listening to songs that inspire you, and your kids (if you're a parent), to keep their antennae up for ways to bond with nature and feel more connected with other living things will have prosocial benefits. I believe that consciously striving to foster a stronger sense of connectedness through music can enhance feelings of spirituality and a sense of oneness, even without intranasal oxytocin.

That said, stay tuned for more potential ways that administering intranasal oxytocin may play a role in certain types of interventions that increase feelings of spiritual and interpersonal connectedness in the future.

To read more on this topic, check out these Psychology Today blog posts:

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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