Childhood memories of Mom are reinforced by a chemical.
Oxytocin – better known as the “hormone of love” – is important in establishing trust and social ties (such as between parents and children or between lovers). This chemical naturally occurs in your brain, and its release is triggered by stimuli such as orgasms and breastfeeding. As a drug, this Trust in a Bottle has even been used to improve social skills in people with autism.
But rather than being a universal “cuddle chemical,” oxytocin appears to exacerbate negative memories in men who are already anxious about their moms, according to a new study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To better understand the relationship of oxytocin and mommy memories, Jennifer Bartz from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and her colleagues asked 31 men ages 19 through 45 to fill out a questionnaire about their relationship experiences. (The researchers focused on men because of the possible side effects of oxytocin in women, such as inducing labor.)
Their answers helped the researchers sort out the men who were anxious about their connection to Mom from those who were secure in their relationship.
Then they gave oxytocin nasal spray (Syntocinon from Swiss pharma Novartis) to some men and placebos to others. They were then asked more questions about their childhood memories of their mothers' care and closeness.
“What we set out to do in this particular study is to look at the role of oxytocin in attachment representations that we form as infants," says Bartz. "These early life attachments are believed to affect our relationships throughout life.”
The researchers discovered that oxytocin worked differently in men who had positive recollections and the men whose relationships with mom invoked anxiety.
The more securely attached men remember their mothers as more caring and close after receiving the oxytocin boost. But the more insecure, anxiously attached men remember their mothers as less caring and close. In other words, the drug appeared to amplify preexisting perceptions – rather than cast a fuzzy warm glow over memories of their mothers regardless of what they actually were.
“The fact that oxytocin did not make all participants remember their mother as more caring," Bartz says, "suggests that oxytocin plays a more specific role in these attachment representations.”
The love hormone, as it turns out, is not an “all-purpose attachment panacea,” the authors write.
“If oxytocin were really a 'love drug,' if you give it to people, they should feel in love and attracted to anyone," says co-author Jamil Zaki from Harvard. "No matter who they are, it should increase prosocial feelings. Our research dispels that myth.”
Image: Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter via Wikimedia Commons