The "Love Hormone" Oxytocin Helps People Recognize Faces They've Seen Before

By Eliza Strickland | January 7, 2009 4:37 pm

face collageThe 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.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: A Dose of Human Kindness, Now in Chemical Form examines oxytocin’s effects on generosity
DISCOVER: Emotions and the Brain: Love goes deeper into the neurological component of affection

Image: flickr / luc legay

  • David Bosley

    Since loss of short term memory in Alzheimer’s patients is related to visual processing, could this be another research area? Thank you for the opportunity to post a question. …boz…

  • Bette

    That is a good question boz. That seems to be a major source of distress in those loving someone with Alzheimer’s, that they are not recognized. This seems perfect for that. Love Bette

  • Adam

    I find it interesting that it helps with memory, which is still something of a mystery… What exactly IS a memory, and where are they stored?

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    You have done a remarkable job! we appreciate you your fantastic article as well as blog that makes my personal day…

  • Angie

    Interesting. Would be useful to give to mothers who are having trouble bonding with their new babies. Maybe some people are unable to produce enough. I’d like to know what natural dietary promoters of oxytocin there are. Presumably pregnant mothers should avoid them if there is a danger of premature childbirth though. I remember being given too great a dose to promote childbirth. Ouch! But I did spend 3 days unable to take my eyes off my new daughter!


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