January 20th, 2009 at 7:45 pm (raven)
I recently heard about a friend of a friend of a friend hosting an oxytocin-sniffing party. I don’t know how common or rare that is, but it was new to me. I was immediately intrigued: I would love to know what the direct effects of oxytocin feel like. I mean, I *think* I know, but how fun to know for sure! Then my wiser friend cautioned that this may be more dangerous than fun.
He’s right. When female prairie voles’ brains are injected with oxytocin (usually what happens during mating), they pair-mate with the closest male, not their favorite and not the most evolutionary fit - the closest. Ewes injected with oxytocin bond to an unknown lamb like it is her own. People sniffing oxytocin are more likely to trust strangers while playing a gambling game, whether the strangers deserve it or not. Oxytocin is the superglue of neurotransmitters - care must be taken so you don’t do something dumb like mistakenly bond your fingers together.
I don’t know if sniffing oxytocin at a party would cause me to become attached to someone with whom I normally would not want to spend much time. But, um, I don’t think I’ll take the chance.
Unfortunate bonding is not only a danger at mysterious parties of indulgence. It can happen in the sober real-world, too. How wonderful it would be to sever the oxytocin and dopamine ties to someone after a break-up. Those weeks or months of weight-loss, yearning, and aching - gone.
Larry J. Youngs’s essay in Nature last week suggests that we are on the path to do just that. Our unraveling of the biochemical pathways behind love and bonding may lead to a love potion or genetic counseling for relationships, since the vasopressin receptor gene AVPR1A is linked to pair bonding ability (read: propensity to cheat) in human males.
In a New York Times article responding to Young’s essay, John Tierney argues the practicality of a love vaccine. This isn’t science fiction - an oxytocin blocker does turn normally monogamous female voles into philandering playgirls. What having blocked oxytocin would actually feel like is hard to imagine. Would the females be enjoying that sex or would it feel emptier?
I find it helps just to know what’s going on with oxytocin and dopamine and vasopressin in the various stages of becoming and being in love. Being able to manipulate these molecules in the process, like a kit of various adhesives and solvents, well, that could take some practice and I’m sure some fingers would lose a bit of skin in the mastering.