First Published May 29, 2008.

  It turns out that trust is chemical, at least according to modern neuroscience and research into oxytocin.  Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the neuron part of the pituitary gland that has long been known to strengthen uterine contractions in childbirth and to start milk production in breast feeding.   More recently, scientists have started to understand its role in brain and behavior with key role in trust.  It is now thought the surge in oxytocin in the aforementioned activities is a key part of the bond a mother forms with her child.  Oxytocin is also released during sexual climax, and may play a key role in partner bonding, (All the more reason to be choosy about who you hook up with, perhaps even wait until marriage, but I digress.)  

      Swiss researchers found that subjects who took oxytocin nasal spray had decreased activity in their amygdala, a known center activated in the fear response, and in the dorsal striatum, an area that is part of the  whole emotion/behavior circuit.  They also demonstrated that people given the hormone were much more likely to risk money in “trust games”, even when told they had been betrayed by the investors they interacted with, compared to people receiving placebo.  When interactions were done over computer, the effect was lost.  It seems we now have a chemical key for forgiving and forgetting, a critical skill in any relationship.   Sadly, it is also a key for the con-man.  Maybe I’m a little short on oxytocin myself, but I wonder why this experiment was even done looking at money and financial decisions.

    This is being touted as a breakthrough that may lead to new treatments for social phobia, which I of all people can certainly appreciate.  Used wisely this could really be a godsend to we who suffer from that particular problem.  The problem is, it also sounds disturbingly like a new love potion.  Picture the scenario, your date decides rather than knocking you out with rufees, to slip an oxytocin mickey into their dates drink, lowering their date’s defenses.  Can you still call it date rape?  Okay, this really not all that different than what people have done for centuries with alcohol, except now you even build trust the morning after.  Thankfully, oxytocin is destroyed in the stomach.  I don’t believe anyone has yet figured out how to surreptitiously squirt stuff up your nose. 

    While an overdose of fear is debilitating and miserable, there is no doubt a little is protective.  In evolutionary biology they have a word for animals that don’t fear–  lunch.  As the mind-brain dichotomy breaks down little by little and we learn that behavior and biology have stronger and stronger ties, I fear what we may do with this information. 

     Does it become more acceptible to modify behavior because we can?  As certain scientists convince themselves free will is an illusion, do the lines drawn in the sand fade?  We have experimental evidence of the change in behavior just being exposed to this idea causes.  Psychology can be so complex. 

    The mind is the center of who we are, and therefore the center of stigmatization for the mentally ill.  This is ugly, counterproductive and hurtful.    It is difficult to look at a malady that effects the core of our being the same way we would any other illness.  I am not so sure this is even desirable, lest we start to see man as a machine or the mind as something to be manipulated as freely as the lungs in asthma or pancreas in diabetes.  

    Yet, faulty thought and circuitry do lead to much suffering in life.  It is odd that changing the circuitry through study, thought, meditation, and counseling are so much less threatening that changing it chemically.  It can be argued they both lead to the same end, our happiness and a healthy outlook on life.  The key is who gets to make the decision.  Even then, we still intervene when the depressed desire suicide.  I only hope this kind of decision is not something we become cavalier about.  I hope as physicians and as a society, our outlook can maintain a healthy respect for the individual, that the power we gain unlocking the brain will not be the source of gratifying our own pride, but in making life better for others who need and desire it.

   Tagged: agency, betrayal, bioethics, choice, con artist, control, fear, finances, forgiveness, free will, freedom, intimacy, love, manipulation, medical ethics, money, neuroscience, oppression, oxytocin, power, prejudice, sex, stigma, trust   

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