It’s been awhile since I’ve done a science/medicine post, but this one caught my eye the other day. One of the things I find fascinating in a creepy way about the body is how much our personality is controlled by simple chemical reactions. Entire personalities can change as a result of damage to the brain or a change in neurotransmitter and hormone levels.

source: Re-Create Your Life Today

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the posterior pituitary in the brain. It is responsible for uterine contractions when a woman gives birth. It is also the hormone that is associated with that warm fuzzy feeling we feel when we are close to someone we care about. It is produced during childbirth and during sex. It is often called the “love hormone” because much of the non-sexual attachment we feel for our offspring and for our significant other are attributed to oxytocin. (I also would guess it’s produced when I see fuzzy, baby animals, because something chemical has to be the reason my voice raises two octaves every time my roommate’s dog enters the room.)

Also, as the article that caught my attention points out, oxytocin might be an important determining factor in our moral decision making.

It makes sense; if oxytocin makes you feel kindly toward others it would make sense that your choices would be more aimed at the good of the whole.

But I balk a little at this term “moral.” The article seems to equate trust and generosity is a sense of morality, and even makes the point that hormones known for increasing self-preservation (testosterone in this case) counteract the effects of oxytocin. A bride, feeling warm and loved in the thrill of her wedding experiences a much higher jump in oxytocin than the groom, whose testosterone levels shoot up as the guests admire her in her wedding gown. (Or so the author conjectures.)

Generosity isn’t a bad way to measure moral fiber, I suppose, but donating money a pretty unambiguous measurement. What about the more complex moral choices we make every day? The article left me wondering; do oxytocin levels affect a woman’s choice to keep or abort a pregnancy? What about race, religious tolerance or homophobia? And does this battle with testosterone imply that morality and self-preservation are inherently at odds? Certainly the act of falling in love and out of love can have a detrimental affect on our reasoning skills.

The author does take this into account and points out that there are myriad factors besides oxytocin playing a part. But as food for thought, it certainly has my wheels turning.

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