Jennifer Bartz, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has found several responses that depend on a person’s mindset. She showed that socially secure people remember their mothers in a more positive light after inhaling oxytocin, while anxious ones remember mum as less caring and more distant. Along similar lines, she showed that oxytocin hinders trust and cooperation among people with borderline personality disorder.
These nuances didn’t come out of the blue. When Bartz looked at the early oxytocin studies more closely, she found that around half of them showed that the hormone enhanced positive behavior only in certain situations or individuals.
Sue Carter, who did much of the early oxytocin research with animals, views oxytocin as part of an adaptive system that allows us to coordinate our behavior with our social situation. It's a system that acts against the background of our histories and emotions.
The problem with oxytocin research is that too many people have been focusing on cataloging what it does (at least in some situations), rather than how it works. Say I’m new to computers and install my first Web browser. Suddenly, I can talk to friends, check train times, and buy books. Web browsers look like a pretty sweet thing. Then I discover Chatroulette and things are not sweet any longer. And none of this tells me anything about the existence of the internet, servers, code, and so on. I know what Web browsers can do, but not how they work.
This is the stage we’re at with oxytocin, and it’s the problem that Bartz and others want to crack. They already have some good ideas. Maybe oxytocin is a motivator that drives us to seek out social interactions. That would explain why it improves trust in some situations but drives bias and favoritism in others. More likely still, oxytocin could be a spotlight that draws our attention to social cues, making them more noteworthy. If we are naturally sociable, that’s a boon. If we are anxious, oxytocin only exacerbates the things that make us nervous.
These hypotheses are up for testing. Either or both of them might be correct, but neither fits with the idea of a single molecule that’s the seat of morality. The truth, as they say, is a bit more complicated than that.
Why does any of this matter? Because the hype around oxytocin hurts and exploits vulnerable people. The hormone’s reputed ability to fix social ills has drawn the attention of parents whose children have autism, depression, or other conditions characterised by social problems. Many groups are looking to use oxytocin to ease those conditions, but always with great caution. Heinrichs, for example, is running a trial to see if oxytocin can help people with borderline personality disorder, when used alongside normal therapy. “If you sit at home with a social phobia and a prescribed nasal spray, the only effect you’d get would be a dripping nose,” he told me last year when I spoke to him for a New Scientist story.
But some people aren’t going to wait. Many of the scientists I have spoken to have been approached by parents who had bought oxytocin from the Internet and were using it to treat their relatives. “That’s very worrying,” says Carter. “There hasn’t been a single published study on the use of oxytocin in young children, and we have no knowledge of the long-term consequences.”
In many ways, oxytocin epitomises what happens when enthusiasm, salesmanship, and optimism runs ahead of evidence and careful experimentation. The true moral of the moral molecule may be that ideas that are too cleanly packaged are probably just fragments.