(Divine Caroline) Ever wonder why a hug from the right person at the end of a long, grueling day feels so great, or why many of us schedule (or wish we could schedule) regular massage appointments? As humans, we’re hardwired to seek out and enjoy physical touch. When it happens, our brains reward us by releasing a calm-inducing hormone/neurotransmitter called oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle” hormone.
Discussion about oxytocin initially focused on its roles in controlling contractions during childbirth, stimulating lactation postbirth, bringing people closer to each other, and inciting physical sexual responses. Further studies have shown that oxytocin’s relevance to our lives extends beyond bonding and birth. When this hormone’s flowing freely, it puts us in a peaceful, happy state of mind; it helps us feel emotionally connected to whoever’s the source of that touch. But oxytocin affects our social selves in ways we don’t even realize—and despite what its cuddly nickname suggests, they’re not all positive.
The good: it helps us read people better.
Many oxytocin receptors are located in the brain’s amygdala. When you see someone frown and you understand that he or she’s upset, that’s because the amygdala’s taken a physical cue (the frown) and correctly translated it into emotional meaning. Because of this, oxytocin is partly responsible for our ability to pick up on others’ emotions. People who have trouble doing this, such as autistics or those with Asperger’s, are thought to have unusually low oxytocin levels.
Various studies have found that raising oxytocin levels can markedly improve facial reading. In a 2006 study at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, fifteen autistic volunteers were given either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo and then asked to listen to a voice. Those with oxytocin were better able to decipher the emotion behind the speaker’s tone. A 2010 study published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Science asked thirteen people with Asperger’s to study pictures of faces and answer questions about them. After inhaling oxytocin, the participants looked longer at the faces and even increased eye gazing—both of which people with Asperger’s usually avoid. The same positive effect has been demonstrated among healthy participants, too. A 2007 study published in Biological Psychology showed that thirty males asked to pinpoint emotional states by analyzing the eye region did better when their oxytocin levels were increased.
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