Sex, the cuddle chemical, and religion

Sex, the cuddle chemical, and religion October 2, 2014

Kate Stockly-Myerdirk

Mother and Baby

Last week, Connor wrote about sex differences here. I happen to research one specific instance of sex difference: the fact that women tend to be more religious than men. Social scientists have come up with all sorts of unsatisfying theories for why this could be. Is it because women are socialized to be more submissive, gentle, and expressive, which are (apparently) religious values? Is it because church life is an extension of home and family life, in which women (apparently) are more involved? Or perhaps it’s because “God” is a father figure, so men fear him, whereas women are attracted to him? Personally, I’m not convinced by any of these theories. But the question deserves real attention.

Allow me to introduce myself: I studied religion, psychology, and gender studies in college, have an MA in comparative religion, and am now a PhD student in science, philosophy, and religion at Boston University. I’m a woman, and I’m a feminist.* I think that men and women are, on average, more alike than different, and the individual variation within the sexes is stunning.

And yet, I’m shocked when people ignore or fight the fact that there are statistically significant biological variances between males and females. Do these differences mean that all women and men are destined to be a certain way?  Of course not. For example, men tend to be taller than women. And yet we all know women who are taller than the average man, and many men are shorter than the average woman. But here’s the thing: this difference in average height is more statistically significant and consistent than any cognitive or psychological difference between the sexes.

This serves as a reminder that such claims like “men are taller than women” or “women are more religious than men” should not be taken as hard rules. However, they are statistically valid and important for understanding ourselves. Obviously any difference, whether physical, psychological, or cognitive, doesn’t – and shouldn’t – “matter” for practical purposes like hiring, promotions, or measuring intelligence. However, some differences do exist. They’re interesting. And for things like brain science, medicine, and solid empirical research, they matter.

To illustrate, I’m going to talk a bit about oxytocin, the sexes, and religion.

Oxytocin, an amazing little neuropeptide, has become a staple in popular science writing. It has lots of fun nicknames, including the Love Drug, the Moral Molecule, and the Cuddle Chemical. Such nicknames highlight titillating details such as that oxytocin intensifies orgasms, makes men want to play with kids more (awwww), and generally makes people moral. In physiological terms, oxytocin has been thought to play a basic “bonding” role in humans, including making mothers and infants “fall in love” with one another during breastfeeding. Some writers have even claimed that oxytocin might “rebond our troubled world.” Quite the task!

However, in reality oxytocin helps moderate every layer of human sociality, including empathy and solid marriages – as well as the not-so-pretty stuff like out-group hostility.

Our bodies produce oxytocin all the time – for example, when people hug or kiss someone they love, or attend a wedding – but an easy way for scientists to study the effects of oxytocin is to give study participants an extra shot of it through a nasal spray. These studies have garnered fascinating results. Turns out, people with a little extra oxytocin in their system are more generous in economic games, give more money to charity, are more trusting, and can interpret other people’s facial expressions better.

However, there’s something wrong with that last sentence.

By “people,” I mean men.

That’s right: until 2010, almost all experiments using oxytocin nasal spray to study sociality only studied men! And yet, research conclusions were almost always phrased in terms of oxytocin’s effects on “humans.” Now, I understand researchers’ hesitation to give women extra doses of oxytocin; after all, we know that oxytocin has powerful effects on women’s reproductive systems (for example, it can prompt labor, induce an abortion, and promote lactation – who knows what else it could do!). But what I don’t understand is how scientists rationalize generalizing male bodies as representative of humans. Especially when talking about oxytocin, which has specific interactions with women’s bodies. After all, researchers avoided using female participants in the first place in order to avoid possible negative health effects due to women’s distinct physiology.

However, recently a few brave researchers began using female participants. And guess what? Women and men respond differently to snorting oxytocin. For instance, men who received the oxytocin nasal spray showed decreased activity in the amygdala when looking at pictures of unpleasant scenes or negative facial expressions. But women who received oxytocin showed increased activity in the amygdala in response to fearful facial expressions. In another study, men and women were given intranasal oxytocin and asked to interpret videos of subtle social interactions. The oxytocin increased accurate perception of social situations in both men and women.  However, men only got better at recognizing competition, whereas for women oxytocin only helped to recognize kinship.

Contra Freud, women are not just penisless men.

Today, research on oxytocin is rapidly expanding – and not only because the popular science market demands it.

Discovering how oxytocin affects our sociality  – and vice-versa – is opening all sorts of doors for understanding the complex dynamics of social cognition and behavior – and for treating disorders. Researchers are looking, in particular, at schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders. Besides being responsive to oxytocin, schizophrenia and autism both exhibit significant sex differences and have clear links to religious cognition. Thus, in a clinical context, the fact that men and women may respond differently oxytocin actually matters. You’d think that this would be obvious, but unfortunately it isn’t always.

I’ve been thinking for years (literally, years –these are the questions that keep me up at night) about the possible connections between oxytocin, sociality, and religion – particularly religious ritual. Here’s why: although theories of religion are diverse, few theorists would contest the fact that religion has social functions, or at least social effects. Oxytocin has been called the hub of sociality. It probably facilitated the first social bond that ever mattered: the infant-mother bond. Through the wondrous process of evolution, it gradually generalized to male-female pairs, non-sexual friendship, and finally groups of kin and non-kin. Today, thanks at least in part to oxytocin, we have the ability to feel empathy and affiliation with complete strangers. (See Patricia Churchland’s book Braintrust for more.) I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that all social interactions implicate oxytocin – including religious interactions.

Is oxytocin all it takes to get religion? No. We have not found the God Hormone. But oxytocin has been shown to increase when people do things like sing together, view an emotional scene, encounter a trustworthy person, engage in synchronized rituals, or meditate. In addition, the effects of oxytocin include a sense of calm, a feeling that what is happening is right, faster physical healing, increased trust and trustworthiness, an increased likelihood of accepting social risks, an increase in compassion, empathy, and generosity, and increased feelings of well-being. And let’s not forget the studies that show that oxytocin solidifies romantic partnerships and is part of the sexual reward system – ever notice that religious people have more kids?

Of course, this is not to say that either oxytocin or religion is all rainbows and sunshine. Like I mentioned above, oxytocin makes us social, not good. Hostility toward outsiders, envy, gloating, and social aggression are also tangled up with oxytocin (and, yes, religion).

A study published in June looked seriously at the oxytocin-religion hypothesis for the first time. They found significant links between religiosity and high levels of endogenous oxytocin (no nasal sprays needed). This being the first study of its kind, we can’t get too excited about drawing conclusions (there’s no God molecule), but it certainly provides some food for thought.

For example, take the idea of sex differences in religion. If higher levels of oxytocin are correlated with religiosity; and oxytocin is implicated in rituals; and women respond differently to oxytocin…could the influence of oxytocin be one reasons that women tend to be more religious than men? I think it’s worth checking out.

I’m not suggesting that oxytocin is the moderator of religious feelings and behavior or the source of differences between the sexes. But I’d bet the oxytocin system is one of many evolutionary products that have led to the flowering of religion, and maybe even to the fact that women tend to be more religious.

Not only would this help us understand religion, but it might also shed light on one of the most ancient differences between the sexes. For example, some forms of religiosity have a lot less to do with beliefs and a lot more to do with friendship, social support, and community – which might motivate different levels of interest for men and women. Women seem to utilize social resources in times of stress more adeptly than men, who tend to embody the more classically understood “fight-or-flight” response. Thus, there might be something to Sam Harris’s claim that women tend to be turned off by his “angry atheist” attitude. Or perhaps not. The point is that these are important questions for women’s health and social equality of the sexes, and taking them seriously will help us draw more educated guesses about sex differences. And more education is always a good thing.

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* Which means I believe in honoring the value and contributions of all humans. Unfortunately, women have been, and still are, not fully appreciated for their contributions, or even allowed the same opportunities to contribute to areas of society that are dominated by men. Feminism also includes a recognition that men are often not appreciated for their contributions, or allowed to contribute, to the areas of life that are considered the woman’s realm. However, it’s simply true that women experience more systematic and accidental discrimination than men do when considering job opportunities, pay, and expectations of intelligence and success.

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This week’s guest post is courtesy of Kate Stockly-Myerdirk, a PhD student at Boston University.

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