To understand love is to understand the oxytocin response. Oxytocin is truly a miracle molecule. As the body’s chemical of rest, relaxation and balance, it does all sorts of wonderful and important things. We’ll talk more about those later’ but the key thing you need to understand for healthy, happy parenting is that oxytocin is responsible for love.
That’s right. Oxytocin acting in your brain and your body creates the experience we know as love. That’s love in all its dimensions: friendship, the love between parent and child, and the love between you and your mate. It’s also responsible for most of the other positive feelings we have for other people, from the quick exchange of smiles with a stranger you pass, to admiration for a co-worker, to the way you trust your car mechanic not to rip you off.
Oxytocin does all this — and more — in two ways. First, it calms the brain’s fear center. Then, it activates the brain’s social center, making you feel good about interacting with someone. Calming the fear center is crucial. Fear is one of our strongest survival mechanisms, helping us survive physical danger. But it’s usually not the best reaction to social situations. When you’re anxious or afraid, you can’t see things clearly. You may see someone as threatening when he has no intention of harming you. You’re on guard and shut down, as fear chemicals race through your bloodstream.
Oxytocin counteracts the fear chemicals, relaxing you and making you able to see other people as potentially friendly and trustworthy. At the same time, when it activates the brain’s social center, it actually makes you desire social contact.
A healthy brain releases oxytocin in response to positive social cues. For example, when a mother cuddles her child, both of their brains should release oxytocin. The oxytocin travels into their bloodstreams, where it relaxes them and encourages cellular repair. It also enters the parts of their brain that process social information, making them feel secure and loving.
Humans are hard-wired to not only enjoy but to need to be close to other humans. Scientists think this is because, in the brains of highly social mammals – including monkeys, wolves, many birds and humans — the social centers are highly sensitive to both oxytocin and dopamine, the chemical of reward-seeking and pleasure. This combination makes socializing very pleasurable and calming. When we’re close to people we trust, the interaction of oxytocin and dopamine leads to us feeling happy and secure. But there is one very big IF in all this. When we say that humans are hard-wired to connect, we mean that our brains have this potential. But the desire for social interaction and the brain’s ability to release oxytocin are not automatic. This is a learned response, and it can fail to develop or its development can be thwarted.