EMORY (US)—Neuroscientist Larry Young has been studying brain chemicals linked to the ability to form lasting bonds of affection. “A single molecule can have a profound effect on relationships,” he says.
The work by the Emory University researcher involves prairie voles, highly social animals that tend to form life-long bonds with their mates.
An infusion of oxytocin, a hormone associated with neural rewards and addictions, can cause female prairie voles to become attached to the nearest male, while the hormone vasopressin spurs males’ interest in a female.
Male prairie voles with a genetically limited response to vasopressin were less likely to bond to a mate. Other researchers have identified similar behavior in human males with this genetic trait.
But what about plasticity of the brain? Religion scholar Bobbi Patterson studies how ancient contemplative communities practiced shaping their minds. Their ultimate goal was for love and compassion, minus the intense hormonal urges.
“The biochemistry of the brain, they thought of that as the juices of human behavior, the passions—things that would get you in trouble by sexual behaviors or violence—they would try to block that by training the mind,” Patterson says. “When humans are involved in love and compassion, there’s this sense of making a choice.”
Studies have revealed that even prairie voles have a great deal of plasticity, and that their experiences can shape their hormone levels and their behaviors, says Young, noting another Emory study that found women who were seriously abused as children have low oxytocin levels as adults.
“Much more of our behavior is probably determined by cortical structures that are sort of integrating what is the social structure, what is expected of me,” Young says. “You can inhibit or activate certain of these components much more easily than a vole.”
Still, biology plays an undeniable role in our ability to love and form social bonds, he adds. “A lot of people say, ‘Doesn’t that take away a lot of the magic?’ But, to me, it’s even more beautiful to think that love is being produced through neurotransmission.”
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