Thank you. Researching this first column for you and Forbes India reintroduced me to a great man called Leo Buscaglia who dedicated his life to writing about love. Buscaglia was called the Hug Doctor; his lectures were attended by thousands who would line up afterwards for one of his famous hugs. Based on what we’re learning about the physiological effect of hugs, the name fits.
Studies show that hugs can lower stress and blood pressure levels. If a hug were a pharmaceutical product, it would be a blockbuster. Touch would be its active ingredient, its role to stimulate the release of oxytocin, which acts on the brain, the heart and the reproductive system. It reduces stress, facilitates romantic pair bonding and makes people trust strangers.
Mothers could write the monograph for oxytocin. They know it well as the drug given to induce labour and stimulate the uterus to contract. It is also injected after delivery to ensure a woman does not bleed too much.
Sounds like just the hormone for you? The great news is that you already have it. If you are a woman, you have a lot of it. The height of its accomplishments occurs during sex where at orgasm it peaks in men and women. (Feel free to try this at home. Without medical supervision.) Yes, men have some too, but, alas, they also have more of a structurally similar protein called vasopressin that also increases stress, wariness of strangers, and preparation for danger.
Pity oxytocin can’t be bottled, you say?
Enhanced Liquid Trust is a perfume of oxytocin and pheromones, marketed by Vero Labs, for success in sales and relationships. As it says on the company’s Web site, “Liquid Trust gives you the added edge by releasing oxytocin into the air around you. When you walk into the room, almost immediately, people will have a different feeling about you.” If I knew you put some of that stuff on, I would definitely have a different feeling about you. In a recent essay in Nature, Dr. Larry Young, a neuroscientist from Emory, said that if the product had any effect it would likely be through increasing its users’ confidence. Serious studies, though, continue to assess oxytocin’s impact on marital therapy.
Oxytocin is also being studied for its role in increasing trust. A landmark study in 2005 by scientists from Switzerland showed that a single dose of intranasal oxytocin significantly increased trust between strangers. The strangers were playing a trust game in which if one player trusted the other, they both won more money. Forty-five percent of participants who received oxytocin showed maximum trust, compared to only 21 percent of those who received a placebo. I don’t know of studies that had the players hug instead of squirt stuff up their noses. Try that at your next social gathering and let us know what you find!
Does oxytocin still induce trust upon betrayal? The chilly answer is that it does. In another game, one player gave money to a trustee who was supposed to invest it and return the profits, or betray the player and keep the profits. The players were given feedback on whether they were being treated fairly or duped. One group of players received intranasal oxytocin while the control group received a placebo. The placebo group invested less when they learned they were being duped. Those who received oxytocin continued to trust the broker even when they were betrayed.
The good news is that to see this kind of dramatic effect, scientists feel oxytocin would need to be given through a nasal spray. Simply having oxytocin sprayed in a car showroom may not cut it. But if you walk into a showroom and the sales folk are wearing masks or reaching out to hug you, I advise you think again before pulling out your credit card. On the other hand, if you sufficiently hug, cuddle and coo, you may not need to shop for happiness again! Dr. Kumar, and our health team, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This story appears in the 19 June, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)