Love Hormone Oxytocin Affects Spirituality


2016-09-25 12:26

The love hormone oxytocin has been so named because it has been linked to social bonding, motherly love, and increased empathy, but now there’s evidence it has even farther-reaching effects. Researchers have shown that oxytocin can enhance the sense of spirituality in men.

What’s special about oxytocin?

Scores of studies have been conducted on the merits of oxytocin, a hormone produced by the hypothalamus, a brain region responsible for maintaining the body’s internal balance, synchronizing the endocrine and nervous systems, and regulating hormones throughout the body. The hormone plays an especially important role in maintaining uterine contractions during childbirth, promoting the let-down reflex that enables the breasts to make milk, and stimulating maternal desire and attachment to the child.

Numerous studies have reported that oxytocin also may be effective in treating autism and reducing calorie intake.

This new study highlights another role of oxytocin, that of enhancing the sense of spirituality in men and more positive emotions during meditation. The same effects have yet to be studied in women.

The oxytocin and spirituality study

The Duke University study enrolled 83 men middle-aged men who were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo or an intranasal spray injection of oxytocin. All of the men completed a questionnaire concerning their spiritual beliefs both immediately after and one week following the intervention. They all also participated in a guided meditation, after which they reported the emotions they felt.

Here’s what the researchers learned:

  • Men who received the oxytocin were more likely to report that spirituality was important to them and that life had meaning, regardless of their having any religious affiliation
  • The oxytocin group also said they felt more interconnected with all living things when compared with the placebo group
  • Men given the oxytocin were more likely to say they experienced awe, love, serenity, and other positive emotions during meditation than did those given placebo
  • After evaluating the genotypes of all the subjects, the authors discovered that the positive spirituality experience was strongest for the men who had a gene variation know to regulate oxytocin release in the hypothalamus

Based on these findings, investigators stated that “these results provide the first experimental evidence that spirituality, endorsed by millions worldwide, appears to be supported by OT [oxytocin].”

What could this study mean?

The findings of this study raise lots of questions given, as the authors noted, that “Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs,” and “Oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”
For example, if people could boost their production of oxytocin, would the result be individuals who experience more hope, joy, and serenity in their lives? If so, could this have a significant impact on depression?

What would be the consequences of enhancing one’s oxytocin levels? Do all people who embrace spirituality in their lives tend to have the gene variation noted in this study?

More research is necessary to first determine whether oxytocin has the same impact on women as it did for men in this study. From there, the investigations could take an exciting turn.

Sources
MedicalNewsToday. Oxytocin may intensity spiritual beliefs. 2016 Sept 22
Van Cappellen P et al. Effects of oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2016 Jun 17 online

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