Health: What’s Love Got To Do With It? by Maria Dorfner
Today, I have a fascinating discussion with Paul J. Zak about love, morality and health. Zak has done extensive research into discovering what chemical in our brain ultimately prompts us to love. So much so, that this son of a prior Catholic nun has a new nickname.
Paul J. Zak is a scientist, prolific author, and public speaker. His book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity was published in 2012 and was a finalist for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize. He is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Zak also serves as Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center. He has degrees in mathematics and economics from San Diego State University, a Ph.D. in economics from University of Pennsylvania, and post-doctoral training in neuroimaging from Harvard. He is credited with the first published use of the term “neuroeconomics.” He organized and administers the first doctoral program in neuroeconomics. Dr. Zak’s lab discovered in 2004 that the brain chemical oxytocin allows us to determine who to trust. His current research has shown that oxytocin is responsible for virtuous behaviors, working as the brain’s “moral molecule.” This knowledge is being used to understand the basis for civilization and modern economies, improve negotiations, and treat patients with neurologic and psychiatric disorders. Dr. Zak’s work on oxytocin and relationships has earned him the nickname “Dr. Love.”
Q & A with Paul J. Zak
1. First, what prompted you to write The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity and what’s love got to do with it?
I think the oldest debate humans have had since we have been having debates is on whether our human nature is good or evil. Think Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, etc. We are really curious about this! Of course, most of us can be incredibly kind and sometimes nasty. I wanted to see if I could find a “switch” in the brain from naughty to nice and figure out what turns this switch on and off. And, my mother, before she was my mother, was a Catholic nun. So, growing up I was given a very black and white view of morality. But, my observation was that morality was more situational. So, I basically spent 10 years of research so I could argue better with my mother (!). Based on research done on rodents, I hypothesized that the mammalian neurochemical oxytocin might be the moral molecule. My experiments (and replications and extensions by many others) have shown a key role for oxytocin in motivating positive social behaviors. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love molecule” as it sustains romantic bonds and motivates care for offspring. So, love makes us moral. I think my mom would agree with this!
2. Absolutely. How does positive touch and psychological support promote health?
Oxytocin motivates moral behaviors–even among strangers–by making us feel empathy where we share the emotions of others. It promotes human interactions by reducing stress responses and thereby improving the immune systems. Perhaps surprisingly, it is other people who keep us healthy (and, we’ve shown, happy). We need connections, our brains and bodies crave it. We have shown that touch releases oxytocin. So, I recommend 8 hugs a day. Hug a stranger–its good for them and for you.
3. I’m Italian, so hugs come naturally. What if someone is alone? Can they raise oxytocin levels?
Loneliness is stressful for social creatures like humans. But, people who are alone can “hack” the oxytocin/connection system in several says. First of all, get a pet. Our experiments have shown that dogs are better oxytocin promoters than are cats, but any pet is probably good. Second, use social media. We have shown in experiments that social media of all types cause oxytocin release. Third, massage is very healthful and causes oxytocin release (or start hugging people). Lastly, nearly any activity that people do together can cause oxytocin release, including signing, dancing, going to movies, riding a roller coaster and especially helping others. All these behaviors can “train the brain” to be better at connecting to people by increasing our oxytocin release.
4. Great tips. All in moderation. I read 90% of well-educated men who have graduated from college are ready for marriage between the ages of twenty-six to thirty-three-years-old. These are the high commitment years. Studies show a never married man at age forty-two becomes a confirmed bachelor. Is oxytocin higher during the high commitment years making them able to trust and bond, as older men get jaded?
High testosterone, our experiments have shown, is a powerful oxytocin inhibitor. Testosterone falls in men after age 30 or so. It also falls when men are in committed relationships and when they have children. So, younger men may need a romantic partner to “tame” them so they can better attach to others. Like any other brain system (or the French you took in 5th grade), the brain reduces the energy spent to maintain brain pathways that are little used. Low attachment opportunities may make it harder in the future to find a mate. A dog, though, is a good place to start. Dogs also make being approached by strangers easier. Go dogs!
5. Pets are amazing. How about studies that consistently find a significant correlation between length of marriage and wealth accumulation? Most millionaires are and stay married. According to Dr. Thomas J. Stanley, author of “The Millionaire Mind” millionaires and those who will probably attain this status have a unique ability to select mates with a certain set of qualities: Honest, Responsible, Loving, Capable & Supportive. Does love keep you healthy AND wealthy? If so, how?
Married men work harder, make more money, are happier, and live healthier and longer. This is likely due to the anxiolytic effects of oxytocin. High wealth men tend to have higher testosterone, so both marriage partners need to make love/romance a committment to keep the flame of oxytocin alive.
6. I’ve also read certain foods release oxytocin naturally. Namely, pasta with garlic and tomato sauce (happy to hear as an Italian!), plums, apples, turkey, fish, eggs, cheese, nuts, cottage cheese, chick peas, oregano and another favorite, chocolate! Have I left anything out?
Actually, oxytocin is such a primitive molecule we never run out of its building blocks. Foods rich in phytoestrogens can make us more sensitive to oxytocin (perhaps by increasing oxytocin receptors though this has not been shown in humans yet). These foods include soy, broccoli, tea, wine.
7. What are some more natural ways of releasing this love hormone to stay healthy? (i.e. pets, warm bath, soothing music)
Besides those listed above, moderately stressful events like travel or riding a roller coaster will raise oxytocin. The best way to spike one’s
oxytocin is sex. Cuddling, holding hands, kissing will all do it. Warm temperature helps, as does sharing a meal.
8. Nice. Why hasn’t everyone been prescribed oxytocin in the nasal spray form to boost their well-being?
The spray inhibits the brain’s ability to control the release of oxytocin. The brain’s oxytocin system is finely tuned so that oxytocin is released when we have a positive social interaction and then release is shut off. You don’t want to leave the trust switch turned “on” at all times, this could be dangerous. There is also evidence in animals that long-term oxytocin treatment can damage oxytocin receptors so the trust-empathy system could, over time, begin to fail.
9. Makes sense. Recently, there have been studies linking oxytocin with having a healthier body image. What are your thoughts on it being used as a treatment for anorexia, body dysmorphia or any other number of body image disorders?
My lab has done many studies of oxytocin replacement therapy. For short to moderate periods of time, in combination with counselling, this is an appropriate approach for some patients with body imaging disorders. The first line treatment would be with SSRIs like Prozac or Paxil and it turns out that this class of drugs moderately increases oxytocin in the brain.
10. Finally, if someone were to begin doing all the things you mention, how long would it take them to begin feeling healthier?
Almost immediately! Oxytocin is released in about 1 second after a positive contact. If you follow Dr. Love’s (my nickname) prescription of 8 hugs a day, then you are training the brain to release oxytocin more easily. That’s the key to being happier and healthier (and exercise and eat well wouldn’t hurt, either).
If you’d like to learn more about Paul J. Zak’s amazing work visit http://www.pauljzak.com or watch his Global TED Talk at link below.