Have you ever wondered why it is that sometimes a hug seems like a miracle cure and a bonding experience rolled into one? Look no further, because science has the answer. It happens that the act of hugging stimulates the body’s levels of oxytocin, leading to many health benefits. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love drug” because it is released by intimate interactions between people, such as touching and hugging.
Oxytocin is a hormone that doubles as a neurotransmitter and is responsible for many behaviors, most of which are associated with love. According to PsychCentral, oxytocin aids in these actions:
- Sexual arousal
- Maternal behavior
- An increase in trust
- A decrease in fear
- An increase in generosity and empathy
- Facilitates childbirth and breastfeeding
One of the most common feelings that results from oxytocin is empathy. A study conducted by Jorge A. Barraza and Paul J. Zak “found that empathy was associated with a 47% increase in oxytocin from baseline.” When a person is put in a situation where they must work together or any other type of bonding exercise, oxytocin is released. This release of oxytocin in turn causes people to feel empathy towards others. In the study mentioned, the researchers tested one hundred and forty-five college students from UCLA. Fifty-two percent of these students were female with a mean age of 20.8 years. The participants were assigned randomly into three groups. One group consisted of watching an emotional video and playing an ultimatum game, the second group a control video and an ultimatum game and the third group an emotional video only. The ultimatum game consisted of offering to share a fixed sum of money. Participants were put into groups of two people, one person taking the position decision maker one (DM 1) and the other decision maker two (DM 2). DM 1 was give forty dollars and asked to offer to split it with DM 2. If DM 2 refused, both DMs did not receive the money. The point of the exercise was to measure if there was an increase in oxytocin levels after being generous. This study yielded three main findings:
- Watching the emotional video increased oxytocin levels by 47%
- A positive relationship was found between the amount of empathy the participants experienced and the change in oxytocin levels
- In the ultimatum game there was an increase in experienced empathy associated with greater generosity
As demonstrated by the study, oxytocin increases empathy even between complete strangers and it all starts with a hug. The simple act of touching someone when hugging releases oxytocin to the brain, triggering a feeling of bonding and empathy in our brain.
About Oxytocin. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/about-oxytocin/0001386
Barraza, J., & Zak, P. (2009). Empathy toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin Release and Subsequent Generosity. Annals of the the New York Academy of Sciences: Values, Empaty and Fairness across Social Barriers, 1167, 182-189. Retrieved from http://www.neuroeconomicstudies.org/images/stories/documents/empathy-towards-strangers.pdf