In a post this week titled Oxytocin: The Hype Hormone, blogger Ed Yong takes on both the over-selling (and oversimplification) that grows out of the science of neurochemistry:
"You may have heard of oxytocin as the “moral molecule” or the “hug hormone” or the “cuddle chemical”. Unleashed by hugs, available in a handy nasal spray, and possessed with the ability to boost trust, empathy and a laundry list of virtues, it is apparently the cure to all the world’s social ills.
Except it’s not."
The post was apparently partly inspired by a recent interview in The Guardian with American author Paul Zak, who has, in fact, written a book called The Moral Molecule and who, again apparently, likes to be called Dr. Love, a nickname that one would think would normally set off warning flags and signal flares.
But as that doesn't seem to be always the case, Yong makes an effort to sort out the so-called love science of oxytocin. He points out that although, yes, the hormone does influence social connections (notably pair-bonding in voles, and parent-child bonding in other mammals including humans) its association with "morality" is more dubious. Also that while it's well connected to the biology of relationships, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's somehow the chemistry of pink-heart romance.
For instance, some studies link oxytocin not to cuddly affection but to aggressive protectiveness; something Yong wrote about earlier for New Scientist in a piece titled Dark Side of the Love Hormone (paywall). Other respected science writers, such as Nicholas Wade at The New York Times, have also reported on oxytocin's darker attributes, such as this 2011 piece, Depth of the Kindness Molecule Appears to Know Some Bounds.
And as Yong notes, other reporters at The Guardian have also written critically about oxytocin's warm and fuzzy reputation, such as a Gareth Leng piece warning that so-called oxytocin sprays and other medications that promise to influence behavior are basically the stuff of wishful thinking.
All of which led him to call out the Zak interview as more of a book advertisement than actual journalism. It also led him to fire off a sustained volley of tweets on the subject, so smart (and so fun to read) that science writer Rachel Feltman collected them into a Storify under the hashtag #Schmoxytocin. And from the beginning "Utter bollocks" through its links to numerous research articles on the mixed-signal story of oxytocin, it's not only good reading but good journalism.
UPDATE: Today (July 17) Yong also posted this terrific essay on the subject for Slate, "One Molecule for Love, Morality and Prosperity?"
--- Deborah Blum