The so-called “love hormone” oxytocin, which is linked to a mother’s tender feelings for her child and long-term devotion between mates, may play a more general role in promoting the social cohesion of a group. In a small new study, researchers found that volunteers who got an oxytocin boost were better able to recognize faces they had seen the day before than people who got a placebo, but were no better at recognizing landscapes and and sculptures that they’d previously viewed.
The results are “striking,” says psychologist Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Insel and colleagues have [previously] shown that oxytocin improves the ability of mice to recognize other mice, … but he notes that this is the first time such a specific effect has been seen in humans. The research “supports the notion that social memory is a unique form of memory, biologically distinct from general object memory,” he says [ScienceNOW Daily News].
Oxytocin, a hormone that is produced by the brain, plays a role in a wide variety of human interactions that involve bonding. It is released during childbirth and breastfeeding, figures into romance and sex, and even appears to promote trust between business partners. The new study, reported in The Journal of Neuroscience [subscription required], supports the idea that oxytocin acts as a ubiquitous chemical glue within the brain to cement the personal relationships that are critical for the peaceful co-existence of individuals living within a social group [The Independent].
Other researchers are eager investigate whether the hormone could smooth social activities for people who have autism, who have difficulty meeting the eyes of others and recognizing faces. “This has important implications for disorders such as autism, where social information processing is clearly impaired” [Telegraph], says oxytocin expert Larry Young.
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Image: flickr / luc legay