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Question: What is the role of oxytocin in the brain?

Paul Zak:  So six years ago, we discovered this ancient molecule in our brains that’s been associated with childbirth and care for offspring was also facilitating trust in a stranger in a tangible way.  So we used, what I call a Jerry McGuire approach to research: “Show me the money.”  So if you trust somebody, we’ll put a stack of money on the table and say, hey look, you can send this money to somebody else and if you do it will grow, and then they can keep it all or they can send some back to you.  So this is a task that encapsulates how we trust people outside the laboratory.  And the question was: "Why would you ever trust a stranger with your resources?"  And indeed, we trust strangers with our lives all the time; the planes we fly, the meals we eat.  Who was doing all these things that put our lives at risk.  How can we do that? 

So we found that when someone trusts you, your brain releases oxytocin, this tiny, little, faint and fleeting signature of safety, of care.  And when it does that, the person with higher oxytocin reciprocates.  So when we’re shown trust, our brains motivate us to be trustworthy.  So it’s a beautiful kind of system. 

Question: How can someone increase oxytocin?

Paul Zak: We have found is that there are simple ways to induce the brain to release oxytocin.  For example, we showed recently that when you watch a highly emotional movie, your brain releases oxytocin.  We went to a wedding recently and took blood from the bride and groom and the wedding party.  And weddings, these rituals induce oxytocin release in a pattern you would expect.  Who releases the most oxytocin at a wedding?  The bride, of course.  Who’s next after her?  Who loves this ceremony almost as much as the bride?  Her mother; it’s got to be. 

So, there are patterns.  There are environments that we’ve created that can induce oxytocin release and this bonds us together as a group and as a species.  So there are simple ways to do this.  The simplest is through touch.  So we’ve found that 15 minutes of back massage in the clinical setting will induce oxytocin release and cause people to be much more generous to strangers, subsequently emotional movies, even simple things like making eye contact and hugging are probably enough to activate the system.  And the way it works is, the more you release oxytocin the more your brain is triggered to release it.  That is, you lower the threshold for oxytocin release. 

So if you want to connect to people, if you want to understand what they are feeling and thinking, then you need to engage this oxytocin system.  And that goes from in romantic relationships to friendships to people I work with.  We found very recently, in fact, that those who release more oxytocin when they’re trusted are happier, they report greater satisfaction with life, they have better romantic relationships, they have more friendships, and they have more sex.  All that sounds like a pretty good situation to me.  So by training your brain to release oxytocin through your behaviors, you can actually improve your life.

Recorded October 27, 2010
Interviewed by John Cookson

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