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Is Oxytocin Linked to Feeling Spiritual?

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Is Oxytocin Linked to Feeling Spiritual?

Oxytocin is probably best known as the hormone responsible for causing uterine contractions during labour and helping to shrink the uterus after the birth.  It also causes the woman’s body to release milk when an infant suckles on its mother’s breast, and it helps with the mother and baby bond.  It is only pea-sized in structure, and is at the base of the brain and secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland.  However, it is also released when you hug someone or even when you stroke your pet cat or dog. But Oxytocin can also exaggerate negative memories of not bonding with your mother, and it can make you feel either suspicious or affectionate of people depending on the environment. This is because levels of the hormone tend to be higher during both stressful and bonding times.

A new study has found that oxytocin can lead to feelings of spirituality as well.  The study involved 83 men aged 35 to 64 years old who received either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo, both of which were administered through a nasal spray. The study was “double blind,” which means that neither the men, nor the researchers knew which participants had been given the oxytocin, or which had been administered the placebo.  The participants were asked questions about their feelings of spirituality, their perception of a higher power and how they feel connected to it, and what gives them meaning in their lives.  The men who had received oxytocin were more inclined to say that spirituality was very important to them.  This was during the study and one week after it, compared with those who received the placebo.    The men who had received oxytocin also tended to agree with statements like “I feel that on a higher level all of us share a common bond,” “All life is interconnected” and “I believe that there is a larger meaning to life.”

This research highlights some of the biological aspects involved in feelings of spirituality. Study co-author Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke University said “Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs”.  The study also found that those who had been administered the oxytocin felt more positive emotions during a guided meditation after the study, than the placebo group.  “It’s like a hormone of attachment, you might say,” said Carol Rinkleib Ellison, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Loomis, California and former assistant clinical psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “It creates feelings of calm and closeness.

The researchers also analysed the participants’ DNA for the CD38 gene.  This gene is responsible for regulating the release of oxytocin from the brain.  They concluded that oxytocin more strongly influenced feelings of spirituality in people with a certain variant of this gene. However, the researchers of this study don’t want oxytocin to be called “the spiritual hormone”. “Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” Van Cappellen said.  Also, since the study only included male participants, the results only apply to men, not women.  The effects of oxytocin on spirituality in women still need to be researched they said.

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