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1. The Bond Starts At Birth
"Oxytocin has been studied for a long time because of its role in birth and nursing," explains Dr. Young. The hormone induces labor, is released in the mother's brain when nursing her baby, and causes cells in her breasts to contract and release milk. All of this helps cement the bond between mother and child.
While the hormone can definitely create a bond, it doesn't need to be sexual or even romantic. "In animals, it's what causes mothers to want to nurture their babies," says Dr. Young. "That was the first thing that oxytocin was shown to be involved in." In rats, Dr. Young says, oxytocin has been shown to transform a female, who doesn’t care too much about babies, to suddenly act like "her baby is the most important thing in the world."
Today, researchers like Dr. Young also study oxytocin in prairie voles (adorable little rodents) because they mate monogamously, and more closely model traditional human relationships than other lab animals.
2. But It Is Pretty Sexy
Don't get us wrong though, oxytocin is strongly associated with sex — and what comes after. Sex is the way we get our "most potent" release of oxytocin, Dr. Young explains. Studies show that both men and women have higher levels of the hormone after orgasm, but its role here is still uncertain. We don't know for sure that oxytocin is causing any of those lovely feelings. Still, some researchers have speculated that it may make it easier for us to become aroused by making us feel less anxious.
The issue, however, is that oxytocin isn't only released when you're being physically intimate with someone. Dr. Young explains that you can also stimulate the release of oxytocin in your friends by hugging them or just making eye contact — give it a try!
3. It Doesn't Do Everything By Itself
Oxytocin plays an important role in creating those feel good bonds with other people, but it doesn't do everything by itself. Dr. Young explains that it works alongside other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, to create that uniquely rewarding cocktail of social interaction.
In fact, on its own, oxytocin doesn't make you feel exceptionally good. Dr. Young says that participants can't even tell whether or not they've received a placebo or the real thing — they just might be better at eye contact. "When you give people oxytocin, they don't want to cuddle," he says. "They look into people's eyes more."
4. It's All About Context
As The Atlantic points out, there's the fact that oxytocin doesn't always encourage positivity. Remember how it makes mother rats care more about their babies? Well, it can also make them more aggressive if they're trying to protect those babies. If an intruder male rat comes into the picture, she doesn't suddenly want to cuddle with him. Instead, says Dr. Young, "it makes her very aggressive."
Although a 2005 Nature study found that oxytocin could increase levels of trust in humans, others have shown the opposite — depending on the context. In a 2011 paper, researchers at Mount Sinai found that participants with borderline personality disorder were actually less likely to be trusting or cooperative in a game when given oxytocin. And in a 2009 study, participants who received oxytocin were more likely to feel envious in an unfair situation than those who had a placebo.
Instead of calling oxytocin simply a "cuddle chemical," it's probably more accurate to think of it as something that heightens your attention to whatever social activity's going on around you — positive or negative.
5. Oxytocin May (Eventually) Be Used As A Treatment
Since oxytocin can make us pay more attention to certain social cues, researchers see its potential to help treat many things, including postpartum depression and schizophrenia. Dr. Young is looking at whether oxytocin may help people with autism more readily read their social surroundings.
But actually getting oxytocin to the brain is more challenging than you might expect. Thanks to the blood-brain barrier, a tightly packed system of cells surrounding the capillaries in your brain, getting some types of compounds into the brain can be a little tricky. Dr. Young says he and other scientists have had the most luck with a nasal spray, but there's no telling how much oxytocin really gets where it's supposed to go.