Oxytocin: It Feels Like the Holidays

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The holiday season is upon us and our to-do lists are growing. We have to bake 10,734 cookies, buy 63 presents, and prepare for at least 9 different holiday parties. As we go out to run our gazillion errands, is it any wonder everyone seems stressed? Do you find yourself eying the workers in the check-out lanes trying to decide which one is the least likely to kill you when you hand him your giant stack of coupons?

As it turns out, evolution has equipped us with the skill to pick the best checkout clerk. We have evolved empathy, an innate ability that allows us to determine how others are feeling, and how “pro-social,” or helpful, they are likely to be. In the biomedical research field, lots of energy has been spent figuring out exactly how this complex emotion is controlled within our brains.

Research published recently suggests that oxytocin, a neurotransmitter and hormone, is a key player. Oxytocin influences many social and emotional processes in the human body and brain. It's commonly referred to as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone, as it is involved in both pair bonding between romantic partners as well as between parents and their offspring. Previously, a specific mutation in the oxytocin receptor gene was implicated in both empathy and stress responses, and researchers were interested if this genetic variation could be detected by observing nonverbal indicators of empathetic behavior.

Aleksandr Kogan at UC Berkeley recruited two dozen couples, each of whom had their oxytocin genes sequenced. The researchers then videotaped the couples as one partner discussed a time of suffering in their life, while the other partner listened. A separate group of observers who had never met these couples were asked to watch short, 20 second video clips of the couples’ interactions and rate which individuals showed the most compassion and trustworthiness based strictly on their nonverbal communication (facial expressions, head nods, eye contact, and body language).

Amazingly, the partner's individuals who were rated as appearing the most empathetic were much more likely to have a particular genetic subtype of oxytocin receptor (the GG genotype). Of the 10 most trusted targets, 6 were of the GG genotype, while of the 10 least trusted targets, 9 were carriers of the other allele (listen to the interview, or read more here). It is as though we have evolved a way to see a complete stranger’s “empathy gene” by observing only their nonverbal cues for as little as 20 seconds! No wonder we can successfully choose the most helpful cashier...

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