This post is in the Empathy category

Oxytocin is a brain chemical that has for some time been recognised as playing a central role in the mediation of attachment, and bonding between individuals (Semitelou & Yakinthos, 1998; Uvnäs-Moberg, 1998). It has been dubbed the “love drug” and the “cuddle hormone” and is known to be released into the bloodstream from the hypothalamus at times of emotional stress and certain types of physical stimulation. It was first recognised for its role in stimulating smooth muscle contractions in childbirth and is used as an induction treatment, and it is also released in response to nipple stimulation in lactating women, initiating milk letdown. The hormone is also released in both men and women in sexual arousal and is implicated in pair bonding (Uvnäs-Moberg, 1998).

Of particular note to this study is recent evidence that oxytocin is released in significant quantities in response to music, especially active involvement in music making (Grape, Sandgren, Hansson, Ericson, & Theorell, 2003; Nilsson, 2009) such as singing in groups (Grape et al., 2003). In his 1999 Ernst Bloch lecture, Huron draws from earlier research by Walter Freeman (Freeman, 1995) regarding the social role of oxytocin, suggesting that this concept presents good reasons for social music making such as church singing, songs before battle and football crowds (Huron, 1999/2001), and it may partly explain the “our song” phenomena of courting couples and strong social bonding associated with music-identifying “tribes” such as metal fans, emos and various other “groupies”. It appears to be increasing empathy. This has raised questions in my own mind regarding the possible role of oxytocin in other music-making environments, such as the intense activities in the recording studio. While I do not suggest that the studio is the new cradle of civilisation, it may be a good place for those who may benefit from boosted empathic intuition.

In several recent studies, oxytocin levels have been found to be reduced in autistic children (Green et al., 2001; Hollander et al., 2003; Modahl et al., 1998) and to play a significant role in the manifestation of certain autistic traits. Specifically, giving oxytocin via nasal spray to test subjects with autistic spectrum disorders assisted with recognition of emotions (Guastella et al., 2009), reduced repetitive and compulsive behaviours (Green et al., 2001; Gross-Isseroff, Hermesh, & Weizman, 2001; Hollander et al., 2003) improved perception and retention of social conditions (Hollander et al., 2007) and increased measured empathy, trust and altruistic behaviour (Andari et al., 2010; Hollander et al., 2007; Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005; Posey, Erickson, & McDougle, 2008; Zak, Stanton, & Ahmadi, 2007). It is not clear how this works or what other effects may ensue, but oxytocin is already being marketed and used for symptomatic treatment of some autistic people.

Central to my own experience is an observable increase in social ability and bonding within musical settings, especially studio work where my involvement is “total”. Despite the various studio based incidents reported throughout this document, I consider myself to be less narrowly focussed, more empathic and more able to express and discern internal emotion within such settings than at other times. There is a case to for further investigation of the role of oxytocin via more quantitative means.

On a related note, there also appears to be a relationship between oxytocin and seratonin in the brain. Yoshida et al. (2009) have shown that oxytocin infusion facilitates the release of seratonin in the brain of mice. Seratonin re-uptake inhibiters are widely prescribed as an antidepressant in a variety of mental health instances, including autism, where depression is a common co-morbidity, and this demonstration of a causal relationship has significant implications to treatment of autistic symptomology.

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