Sniffing out character

Oxytocin is sometimes known as the “cuddle” hormone because it promotes trust and bonding. As with most hormones though it’s effects are more subtle and nuanced than this and now a new study has shown that part of what oxytocin does is to improve your perception of someone else’s character.

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide hormone that has effects throughout the nervous system. One of its major actions is to suppress the activity of the brain region known as the amygdala, the area that processes fear and communicates it to the rest of the brain. Hence, oxytocin promotes trust. As well as the brain oxytocin is also produced by other tissues in the body such as the uterus, placenta, testes, and heart. This new study has shown that one of its many functions is to improve perception of hidden cues that communicate a person’s emotional state and character.

To test this researchers had people inhale either a spray that contained oxytocin or a placebo made of salt water. They were then asked to view a series of pictures of other people and estimate whether they were exhibiting happiness, anger, sadness, etc.

The researchers chose images that displayed faces exhibiting “hidden” emotions as well as more clearly defined emotion.

The results showed that oxytocin intensified the subject’s awareness of what emotions were being displayed and felt. Interestingly, those with the lowest scores during the salt water placebo round showed the greatest improvement. This suggests that people who have poor interpersonal communication skills might benefit greatly by oxytocin.

As the researchers suggest, there could be applications of this for treatment of conditions like autism.

For general social issues though, it is problematic to take a sniff of your nasal spray every time you want to assess someone’s emotional state. So how do you stimulate oxytocin to improve your judgement of someone’s character if you don’t want to go sniffing the stuff? Well, human touch stimulates oxytocin release so if you aren’t quite sure where someone is coming from, try giving yourself a little shoulder massage and see how things change. Food also stimulates oxytocin release via the vagus nerve, which makes sense of the social custom of sharing food with someone as a first date; it allows you to judge their character (their table decorum will also be a clue). Sex also stimulates oxytocin and orgasm in both men and women boosts oxytocin levels, although judging someone’s character at that point may be leaving it a touch too late.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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