by Stephanie D. Preston
Science 29 Sep 2017
Vol. 357, Issue 6358, pp. 1353-1354
The text in the above diagram image of the brain highlights an important inconsistency within this article and raises an important question. Does “social behavior in humans occurs because of the connections between oxytocin and the reward-based dopaminergic system” as the caption says? Or does social behavior that an individual chooses based on a decision made after assessing risks and prompted by the desire for and hope of reassuring and safe social interactions, generate such hormonal/neurotransmitter connections that are maintained when positive, rewarding interactions begin to, in fact, take place? In this regard the article’s researcher and the article’s author do in fact caution that the popular literature link between the oxytocin hormone and complex human behavior is overly simplistic. I think the latter is a better explanation.
Yes, consciousness, mind and self are dependent on the brain’s biochemistry. But the processes at work at these higher levels of complexity, including ‘agency,’ need explanations of their own. They are not reducible in a causal sense to biochemistry alone. Bottom up hormonal and neuronal process explanations by themselves are insufficient to discover and explain the myriad of causes underlying and influencing human individual and social behavior.
“Converging research on the role of oxytocin in social bonding suggests that approaching others becomes less scary and more rewarding when it is valuable to the individual.”
“[I]t has been assumed that oxytocin facilitates social bonds by rendering another individual like a drug—something to approach, enjoy, remember, and seek again. This interpretation is so intuitive that hundreds of ‘popular science’ articles have been written about oxytocin as the ‘love drug’ or the ‘hug/trust hormone.’ However, the reality is far from being this simplistic.”
“Oxytocin in humans has also been linked to rewarding and pleasurable phenomena such as romantic love, parenting, and comforting touch; and altruism may be promoted by this oxytocin-VTA mechanism. However, there are many noted failures in human research to replicate associations between oxytocin and prosocial behavior. Such failures may reflect that rodent research usually involves clearly bonded, adaptive contexts (mating and caregiving), whereas human research employs more abstract tasks such as giving money to a stranger.”
How social processes become rewarding
Studies in mice suggest that social behavior in humans occurs because of the connections between oxytocin and the reward-based dopaminergic system, which presumably mediates the ability of humans to notice, seek, remember, and return to rewarding experiences of all types—in this case social contact.
GRAPHIC: C. BICKEL/SCIENCE