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Oxytocin and Human Connection

The brain science behind human connection is getting a lot of attention lately, from the Huffington Post, to the stage at the TED conference to this recent piece in Christianity Today magazine.
In “The Shalom of Neurochemistry” counselor Krispin Mayfield describes his experience leading a men’s recovery group. He describes how some brains are less capable of connection than others, and the hope we all have for change.

Oxytocin reminds us what we were created for: connection. This hormone delivers a reward, like we experience from sex or food, just for being connected to others. The benefits of oxytocin are not limited to mood; it aids digestion, regulates heart rate, reduces drug cravings, improves social skills, and has been shown to increase generosity. Scientists have even demonstrated that it encourages monogamy; one study showed that under the influence of oxytocin, committed men were more likely to keep their distancefrom attractive women. We are meant to pursue monogamy, tenderly care for our children, enjoy close friendships, and maintain peace with acquaintances in our community. Oxytocin reminds us, on a chemical level, of who God is, his Trinitarian nature that is in constant communion with himself. It’s like shalom packed into a hormone.

My appreciation for this hormone has grown throughout my time as a counselor for domestic violence offenders. Each week, I get a picture of life with meager amounts of human connection—what it would be like to have significantly less drive to connect with others. And brain chemistry may play one part in this pattern.

Imagine if your oxytocin receptors never had much chance for development, due to childhood trauma or lack of touch and nurturing. Although oxytocin often follows high levels of stress in order to regulate our mood, those who undergo constant stress experience a diminished ability to create and release oxytocin. And without new experiences of secure relationships, the brain’s ability to produce and release oxytocin will stagnate…

As I’ve listened to the men in my groups, I’ve slowly realized that many do not receive the same fulfillment I do from everyday interactions: a tête-à-tête with a close friend, rocking my newborn son to sleep, cuddling with my wife. For them, reading books to a child feels similar to putting away the dishes. Social gatherings are only as fun as the dopamine-releasing substances that are present. Sex is only as fulfilling as it is exciting and new, and the familiarity of a monogamous sexual relationship quickly turns lackluster.

However, we know that our brains can change. Just in the past twenty years, scientists have been shocked and amazed to discover the plasticity of our brains. We once thought our brains were concreted by early adulthood; now we know that new experiences change the way our brains interact with the world, including the chemicals they release. Though it’s often difficult, we can hack through the jungles of gray matter and create new neuropathways. Even during the 14 weeks my groups run, there can be some spark of change.

You can read the whole piece here.

Start training your brain for connection today with Joy Starts Here.

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