Scientists have known for more than 50 years that a hormone called oxytocin plays a critical role in stimulating uterine contractions during labor and delivery, and that afterward, it helps a nursing mother to release milk for her infant.
Men also produce oxytocin, it turns out, although at lower levels than women. Released during sexual arousal, it appears to promote feelings of contentment and attachment in both sexes, which accounts for one of its cuter nicknames: “the cuddle hormone.”
But these days, scientists know oxytocin does so much more.
Made in a region of the brain known as the hypothalamus and secreted through the pituitary gland, the molecule reaches receptors throughout the body, modulating our moods and our social interactions in profound ways that suggest we are hardwired for empathy.
When experimenters at Claremont Graduate University administered oxytocin to male test subjects, for example, the men consistently scored higher on tests that measured pro-social traits like generosity and trust. At the same time, disruptions in the oxytocin system have been linked to autism, a disorder that is characterized by difficulty in forming human bonds.