Oxytocin and Social Bonding
While most of us would be able to describe what being affectively close to someone feels like, we might find it harder to explain why and how such a connection forms.
Why do we love and what makes us love certain people? Why is love so different depending on the subject of our affection? Is it possible to measure love? What does the complete absence of love in an individual reveal about their health state? With so many questions having been formulated throughout centuries, no wonder love has become a universal conundrum. Traversing various disciplines, it not only represents the realm of the literary, but it has increasingly become one of the central focuses in philosophy, biology, social sciences and neuroscience.
As far as the neuroscientific approaches to love go, this concept is represented by affiliative bonds. Therefore, from now on we shall refer to love as such. For the sake of the reader’s personal interest, we shall further discuss affiliative interactions as they appear and manifest in humans. Affiliation describes the ability of an individual to form close interpersonal bonds with other individuals of the same species. Three prototypes of affiliation have been identified: parental (between children and their parents), pair (between romantic partners) and filial (between friends).
This article is intended to introduce the reader to the evolutionary significance and neurochemical mechanisms underlying social bonding/affiliation. As such, the above-mentioned types of affiliative behaviours will be only in part separately discussed. Instead, we shall focus on what these categories share in common, particularly, the hormone-neurotransmitter oxytocin and the concept of synchrony.
Synchrony refers to the process by which the members of a social group collaborate with each other, in order to achieve a social goal. This kind of collaboration involves concordance in time between members, at the level of behaviour and physiological processes (e.g. hormonal release, neural firing). Through these synchronous processes underlying social reciprocity, each member is introduced to the social milieu, becomes adapted to his/her environment and learns how to survive.
Intimate reciprocal relationships between two individuals in a social group help shape the individual’s moral, empathic and pro-social orientation, as well as social adaptation and self-regulation. The interaction between mother and infant is critical to the social maturation and well-being of the young. Human mothers, just like other mammals, exhibit specific postpartum behaviours, such as affectionate touch, high-pitched vocalisations, expressing positive affect, which lead to the notoriously strong mother-infant bond.
This type of specific attachment relationship coordinates the physiology of the infant with the behaviours of the mother. Moreover, this mother-infant synchrony enables the temporal alignment of the infant’s inner state with the responses of the social environment (via the mother). The absence of a proper interaction between mother and child, especially within the critical period (between 3 and 9 months after birth), has been shown to contribute to the development of autism spectrum disorders (for more information on autism, check out this previous article – Decoding autism).
Romantic attachment is another type of social bonding in humans, with significant implications to the normal psychological functioning of the individual. According to recent studies, both parental and romantic relationships share similar behavioural characteristics (gaze, touch, affects, vocalisations and coordination of these behaviours between the members of the pair) and rely on similar neuroendocrine mechanisms. These mechanisms mainly involve a nine amino-acid neuropeptide known as oxytocin.
Oxytocin acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It is associated with a variety of functions including the initiation of uterine contractions during parturition, homeostatic, appetitive and reward processes, and last but certainly not least, the formation of affiliative bonds. For the latter, oxytocin plays a very important role in social recognition, maternal behaviour and development of partner preferences.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, by the magnocellular neurones clustered in two types of nuclei: the supraoptic and paraventricular. These neurones send projections to the posterior pituitary gland, thus engaging the oxytocin system with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, mediating the stress response, as well as parturition, lactation and milk ejection. Other projections from the paraventricular nucleus go to various forebrain limbic structures (e.g. amygdala, hippocampus), brainstem (e.g. ventral tegmental area) and spinal cord. There are also other areas, apart from the brain and spinal cord, which receive oxytocin signalling, such as the heart, gastrointestinal tract, uterus, placenta, testes etc. With such extensive projections, it comes as no surprise that oxytocin is involved in a wide variety of processes.
In romantic and parental attachment, oxytocin induces the motivation to initiate sexual behaviour, the formation of sexual preferences and the increased stimulant value of the infant for its mother, via its connectivity with the mesolimbic dopaminergic neurones. The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a major role in the reward-motivated behaviour. Therefore, the oxytocin-dopamine interaction is key to the motivation to bond between members of romantic or child-parent relationships.
If you were wondering why the parental attachment has so far been presented only from the perspective of the mother-child relationship, that is because in males a different hormone mediates parental behaviour. Vasopressin can be seen as the male equivalent of oxytocin, as it modulates affiliation, aggression, juvenile recognition, partner preference and parental behaviour in males. Having said that, there are studies which show that oxytocin also supports paternal behaviour and is linked to the father-typical affiliative behaviour.
Oxytocin is also very important in establishing close connection with our best friends (what is known as filial attachment). According to research in this area, children start showing selective attachment to a ‘best friend’ around the age of 3. This kind of interpersonal interaction represents the first attachment to non-kin members of society, therefore, a crucial step in the normal development of any human being.
Depending on the level of synchronous parenting children experienced during infancy, their interactions with best friends can vary in the degree of reciprocity, emotional involvement and concern for the friend’s needs. These behaviours are modulated by oxytocin. During the first 3 years of life, oxytocin secretion in humans depends on the parent’s postpartum behaviour (which is predicted by the parents’ own levels of oxytocin) and, in turn, determines the degree of empathy between close friends. Therefore, a reasonable assumption, which has been recently proven, is that children benefiting from high parental reciprocity during infancy develop better social adaptation, are more friendly and cooperative, and show greater empathy.
All in all, the social bonds we form with members of our social group, be they our family, romantic partners or friends, are dependent on certain hormones and behaviours occurring at critical stages of development. Close attachment bonds with our parents, during early infancy, are later translated into affiliations to non-kin members of the social groups, who we come across during childhood, evolving into intimate friendships during adolescence, which eventually shape the ability of the adult human to form and maintain romantic connections and provide nurture for the next generation.
What we have just discussed is of importance for different aspects. Focusing on oxytocin and synchrony provides better understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. At the same time, this focus offers some answers to questions regarding the reasons and mechanisms underlying the many types of love us humans experience throughout our lives.
Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans. Hormones and Behavior, 61(3), 380-391.
Hammock, E. A. ., & Young, L. J. (2006) Oxytocin, vasopressin and pair bonding: implications for autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361(1476), 2187–2198.