New research released by the Research Council of Norway suggests that by using a nasal spray to ingest a specific hormone, humans can improve their ability to read facial expressions.
Oxytocin, dubbed the “bliss hormone”, is produced by the brain and secreted once an animal has been stimulated by touch — creating the feeling of being relaxed and calm. It is also used to help induce labor, to contract the uterus after childbirth, and to help with breastfeeding.
The hormone is considered an important aspect of forming and maintaining social relationships among many species — and probably humans. Not only this, but studies on the bliss hormone have suggested it may have a positive effect on those with autism — improving the ability to interpret emotions and reducing repetitive behavior.
The latest study, carried out by research fellow at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo, Siri Leknes, involved 40 healthy students who were given a nasal spray. To include a control group, some where given a dose of saltwater, whereas others were given oxytocin.
After the administration, the students were shown photographs of faces wearing various expressions. According to the researchers, some of the faces contained “hidden” emotional expressions which are more difficult to identify — and are generally recognized subconsciously.
Dr Leknes said:
“We found that oxytocin intensified test subjects’ awareness of the emotions present in the photos. Faces expressing anger stood out as angrier and less happy, and correspondingly, faces expressing happiness were happier.
“We know that people express feelings in other ways than through facial expression alone, for example, by means of body language and vocalisation. We presume that our findings also apply for these modes of expression.”
Previous studies and the latest round of experimentation with oxytocin found that those with the lowest aptitude for detecting emotional expressions showed the greatest improvements when given the oxytocin spray. To the researchers, it seems that those who may ‘need’ it most also get the most out of the supplement.
Leknes believes that the spray could be used as a supplementary treatment for those with mental health issues or drug addiction. As both generally result in a diminished capability to recognize emotional expressions, oxytocin might help people respond and cope in social settings.
“If it turns out that our assumptions are correct, then we may be able to come up with a simple treatment that would mean a great deal for people who find it difficult to pick up on the social cues of their peers,” says Dr Leknes.
The study was funded by the Research Council of Norway’s Alcohol and Drug Research Program.
Image credit: Olga Chelnokova