The Science of Jesus

Oxytocin and unconditional love.

Posted Apr 05, 2012

Confession: I was raised Roman Catholic, spent seven years serving as an altar boy, but I haven't been to a Catholic Mass in 25 years.

Like many people, I put myself into the "spiritual" rather than "religious" category. Many spiritual practices appear to guide us toward more fulfilled lives. For me, though, I can't find a church or practice that doesn't feel like a "thou must do this" commandment. But, I still can't get Jesus out of my head.

My lab has spent the last decade running neuroscience experiments to understand why people are good. I discovered that the neurochemical oxytocin is responsible for a large number of moral actions, from trustworthiness and generosity, to charity and compassion. I call oxytocin "the moral molecule" because it motivates us to do things that put others' needs ahead of our own.

The essential element of morality in nearly every philosophical and religious tradition is social: your needs are as important, or even more important than mine. It is these caring actions that sustain us in social groups by demonstrating that we are cooperators, that we will help others and are not just out for ourselves. When someone helps you, your brain releases oxytocin and this signals you to reciprocate.

Those who don't behave morally are ostracized, something that is maladaptive for a highly social species like ours. The seven deadly sins are deadly because they remove us from the community of our brethren. We don't like to be around those who are greedy, lazy, gluttonous and all the rest so we avoid them.

Oxytocin had been known from animal studies to facilitate birth, breastfeeding, and care for offspring. This earned it the moniker the "love hormone." What was new about my experiments was showing that in human beings "love" not only included one's mate and offspring, but extended to complete strangers. Even strangers we will never see or meet.

Which brings us back to Jesus. The new commandment that Jesus gives the apostles at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Gospel of John, is to "love others as I have loved you." In other words, to love indiscriminately. This was a radical departure from the Old Testament "eye for an eye" or to love God because He commands you to do so. It even goes beyond the Golden Rule which tells us to treat others as equal to ourselves.

I think of Jesus as the first hippie. He loved those thought to be unlovable: the criminals and prostitutes, the lepers and slaves. My oxytocin experiments show that nearly all of us have the capacity to love everyone. The only question is whether we'll do this.

One of the important findings I report in my book The Moral Molecule is that those who release the most oxytocin are happier. Their happiness comes from having better relationships of all types: romantic, friendships, and with family. These "oxytocin-adepts" are even nicer to strangers that they will never see.

That's the big take-home: loving others makes us happier. But, how do we learn to do this? Most of us learn to love by receiving love and observing others showing it. This includes being nurtured by parents, watching our friends, or learning about someone who loved everyone. Yup, that's Jesus. Of course, the Buddha, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa are pretty good moral exemplars, too. I think Christianity and many other religions have persisted because they provide a narrative of how to live a fulfilled life: to be of service to others, to show compassion toward even difficult people, and to spread love in the world.

Confession: I love churches. The stained glass, the echoes, the smell of incense. Several years ago I visited St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on a Sunday evening during vespers. It brought me to tears.

I have run experiments in churches and temples, during dances and sporting events. I have found that these rituals cause oxytocin release in about 60 percent of those participating. Rituals, including religious rituals, are not going away because they bring us closer to others. And perhaps closer to our loving selves. Just like a hippie who lived two thousand years ago.