The Role of Oxytocin and the Cocktail of Hormones We Call Love
Have you heard of Oxytocin? We’re sure you’ve heard the word itself at least once. The thing is, as is the case with most scientific jargon, we may hear and use words frequently, but not fully understand their meanings and implications. When we seek to understand the behaviours of ourselves and those around us, we often look to the psychological and emotional factors which may provoke them. Humans are vastly complicated, far more than we can ever fully understand, and this is why we feel it’s important to seek self-understanding from as many perspectives possible. So, if you’re wondering about your actions and emotions in terms of love, there may be some benefit in looking to our good pal science for some intel.
Life on earth is fundamentally social.
From interacting dynamically with all other living organisms to support mutual homeostasis, growth, and reproduction to social interactions with primitive invertebrates. Even bacteria can recognize and form communities with physical and chemical characteristics that go far beyond the capabilities of the individual cell. The plentiful social systems that we interact with and within on a daily basis aren’t only unique to humans, in fact, the division of labor and life called “eusociality” happens to everyone from trees to bees.
Though, there are a few things we experience that trees may not. As mammals, we seem to show intense parental investment as well as strong, lasting bonds. From wolves to voles to humans we see a pattern in long-lasting, selective relationships between adults – something you may associate with the term “love.” Love: everyone’s heard of it, most of us have felt it, our world seemingly revolves around it. The reciprocal feelings of attachment and investment that come hand-in-hand with love can actually trigger dynamic feedback mechanisms that foster growth and health.
The biology of love originates in the primitive parts of the brain—the emotional core of the human nervous system—that evolved long before the cerebral cortex.
The brain of a human ‘in love’ is flooded with sensations, often transmitted by the vagus nerve, creating much of what we experience as emotion.
The modern cortex struggles to interpret the primal messages of love, and weaves a narrative around incoming visceral experiences, potentially reacting to that narrative rather than reality.
Our behaviors have changed and adapted to social norms, as well as biological evolution throughout time, making the long-lasting relationships we have today. But one element of this biochemistry that you’ve likely heard of is the neuropeptide, oxytocin.
The time period in which a baby is reliant on a mother’s milk is a crucial bonding time, being essential for the nourishment and survival of the baby. But the bond between an infant and a birth-giver can’t come solely from this physical interaction, can it? What about the mothers who have a cesarean section and/or those who opt out of breastfeeding? They too still form long-lasting, emotional bonds with the children, as well as all others involved in the child’s life such as the father, and other relatives or family friends.
Research has shown that, put in the most simplistic way, the mear presence of an infant releases oxytocin in adults. Babies literally trick us into loving them, the sneaky little things.
We form emotional bonds when someone depends on you, especially in times of survival and heavy stress. Because babies are incapable of surviving (or doing anything, for that matter) on their own, they trigger these bonds in adults they come into contact with. The oxytocin released could potentially act as a hormonal process to help us with debilitating stress.
Oxytocin might help to assure that parents and others will engage with and care for infants, to stabilize loving relationships and to ensure that, in times of need, we will seek and receive support from others.
We typically think of oxytocin just being love related, but it connects with other social behaviors, too such as the facilitation of eye contact and social cognition.
Love does not equal oxytocin; oxytocin does not equal love.
But keep in mind, that it’s just one *important* aspect of our complex neurochemical system that allows the body to adapt to highly emotive situations. Our systems needed for reciprocal social interactions are connected to a huge system of the brain and autonomic nervous system that change constantly throughout our lives. Oxytocin isn’t predetermined nor stable and the receptors that facilitate oxytocin are also regulated by other hormones and epigenetic actors. As well as, our “experience” of love can and will change over time.
It’s not all chemical: love can be thought of as an epigenetic phenomenon. From social experiences, emotional attachments, and reciprocal relationships- there is a connection and lots of variation when it comes to environment and biology. We see that exposure to oxytocin, especially when we are babies, can help to regulate our ability to love and form social bonds and even further, has an impact on our overall health.
The same molecules that allow us to give and receive love, also link our need for others with health and well-being and the same hormones and areas of the brain that increase the capacity of the body to survive stress also enable us to better adapt to an ever-changing social and physical environment.
Emotional support and love can have a protective effect on our bodies, minds and overall wellbeing. These protections rely on “the same cocktail of hormones that carry a biological message of ‘love’ throughout the body.”
Humans are pretty damn cool wouldn’t you say? When it comes to our actions and emotions it can be easy to forget that there are countless variables coming into play which may effect how we choose to act. It can be difficult to separate our needs, wants, and desires in terms of those which are innate and those which are conscious. Learning about ourselves, our brains, our hormones, and everything in between can open avenues for self-understanding and self-exploration more so than you could ever imagine. Questions? Reach out! Comments? We’d love to hear them.