Posts Tagged ‘oxytocin’

Suggestible You 4

March 20, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the fourth post on this book.

An important question is whether there is a way to enhance the placebo effect, or even make it permanent.  In 2015 Karin Jensen, a placebo researcher at Harvard,  published an experiment that showed how our brains can self-medicate even when we are not paying attention.  She set up a two phase experiment in which subjects wore a painful heat pad that flared up whenever they saw a picture of a certain face and died down when they saw another, similar face.  The brain learns that one face is bad and the other face is good.

In the next phase, after the relationship had been ingrained in the participant, she turned the heat to somewhere in the middle.  This time she showed the picture for only a fraction of a second, so the participants could barely see the face.  The subconscious mind could spot the difference, but the conscious mind could not.  Nevertheless the participants continued to feel pain with the bad face, and less pain with the good face, even when they could not consciously distinguish the faces.  With enough practice, people can unconsciously trigger the placebo effect with the flash of one face, even though their conscious mind has no idea its happening.

The placebo effect can also be altered by peer pressure.  One of Wager’s students, Leonie Koban, set up an experiment in which people  rated various levels of heat pain applied to their arms by a metal pad.  After gauging each person’s pain threshold, she asked them to rate how much pain they expected to feel before she applied it, but with one additional crucial element.  They would also be able to see how other people had rated the same pain.  These previous reports of pain were totally made up.  Still, people who felt a strong pain rated it lower if that’s what they thought others had done.  And people who were told others had felt a lot of pain rated the pain highly even if it was mild.  This peer pressure placebo effect was twice as strong as the normal placebo effect!  As a check, Koban recorded their skin conductance, which is a physiological response to pain.  On the basis of skin conductance it was impossible to differentiate from a genuine experience.

It seems that people are programmed with a preexisting need to go with the herd.  People quickly tapped into a more powerful placebo response than if they had spent hours conditioning themselves.  So someone else’s opinion is not only powerful, but it can be more powerful than your experience and even more powerful than repeated conditioning.  So we are hardwired to follow other people’s opinions.

Vance suggests that there might be some biochemistry involved in this interaction.  Luana did an experiment similar to the one reported in Suggestible You 2 in which a green screen induced a placebo effect.  The participants in this new experiment were given a dose of vasopressin before the green screen experiment. In yet another experiment the participants were given a dose of a related hormone, oxytocin.  These drugs greatly enhanced the placebo effect.  These hormones play a large role in social interactions among people.  Vasopressin seems to regulate social communication and conciliatory behavior.  Oxytocin seems to be involved in experiences of empathy, trust, and social learning.  So the same chemicals that draw us together as humans and allow us to work together can also boost the placebo response altogether.


Turning on Genes in the Brain

June 12, 2016

The seventh chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley explains how genes in the brain are turned on.  This chapter begins by explaining the plight of many Romanian orphans after the dictator Ceausescu was overthrown.  The terrible neglect of these orphans produced severe cognitive and emotional shortcomings, which will not be reviewed.

The single best predictor of the growth of a baby is to ask its mother, “Did you want this child?”  In 2005 scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed a study showing what can happen to children whose parents answer “no” to this question.  The researchers studied children who were “reared in extremely aberrant social environments where they were deprived of the kind of caregiving typical for our species.  This meant that for seven to forty-two months after their birth, the twelve girls and six boys had lived in Russian or Romanian orphanages  that the World Health Organization described as poor to appalling.  These environments were generally void of stimulation and human interaction.  The children seldom experienced the love and caring of adults who recognized and responded to their needs.

These children were adopted by American families.  Within a year, most of their medical problems—ear infections and stomach problems, malnutrition and delayed growth—vanished.  Nevertheless, due to their legacy of neglect many of the children were diagnosed with attachment disorders, an inability to form emotional bonds to those closest to them.

Animal studies have identified two brain hormones as crucial to establishing social bonds and regulating emotional behaviors.  These are oxytocin and vasopressin that are associated with the emergence of social bonding and parental care.  Oxytocin, in particular, seems to be the brain’s social hormone.  When you have warm personal contact with someone you are close to, levels rise generating a sense of security and safety that lays the foundation for you to go out and have social interactions.  So we make friends and form close emotional attachments.  Vasopressin seems to be the “Oh, it’s you!” hormone.

The scientists tracked down eighteen of the Roumanian orphans who lived in Wisconsin.  They collected two urine sample from each child, a week or two apart, soon after the children played a computer  game while sitting on the lap of their mother or one of the female scientists.  Throughout the thirty-minute game, the mother or the scientist would whisper to the child, pat him on the head, tickle him or count his fingers and let him count hers, turning the otherwise impersonal game into a bit of a cuddle session.

These orphanage children had lower levels of vasopressin, suggesting that social deprivation may inhibit the development of the vasopressin system.  The children’s level of oxytocin after playing a game with their mother or a scientist was even more depressing.  Levels of this social-bonding hormone were not expected to rise after the interactions with the stranger, and they did not, in either the orphanage children or the control children.  However, after the children born to loving families sat on their mother’s lap and cuddled, their levels of oxytocin rose.  These levels did not rise in the orphanage children.  “Oxytocin is the system that cements the bonds between children and those who love them, producing a sense of calm and comfort that provides a base from which the children and those who love them, producing a sense of calm and comfort that provides a base from which children go out and embrace the world, form childhood friendships and, eventually, deep relationships .  This system was not what it should have been in the orphanage children.

“This research suggests that the lives we lead and the behavior of those who care for us can alter the very chemistry of DNA.  Genes are not destiny.  Our genes, and thus their effects on the brain, are more plastic than we ever dreamed.”

Richie Davidson said, “This work beautifully illustrates the mechanisms by which maternal influence can occur, and that it can occur in ways that affect gene expression.  This is powerful evidence for the impact of parenting on the capacity to change the brain and raises the issue of how we can promote better parenting.”

The Dalai Lama opined, “So the key thing is a peaceful mind.  Naturally and obviously, anger, hatred, jealously, fear, these are not helpful to develop peace of mind.  Love, compassion, affection—these are the foundations of a peaceful mind.  But then the question, how to promote that?  My approach, not through Buddhist tradition, I call secular ethics.  Not talking about heaven, not of nirvana or Buddhahood, but a happy life for this world.   Irrespective of whether  there is a next life or not.  Doesn’t matter.  That’s individual business.”

Storytelling and Neural Coupling

October 5, 2015

This post is based on a section by the same name in Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will  by Geoff Colvin.  When we hear a story in one particular form the speaker’s and the listener’s brains align.  We not only experience the story but we also are having the same experience.  The same parts of the brain are being energized in teller and listener, that is, there is neural coupling.  The brains of the storyteller and hearer light up not just in areas controlling speech and language, but also  in areas known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful communication, include the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires and goals of others, which is empathy.  This phenomenon becomes even stronger when a storyteller is speaking  to several listeners, when similar brain activity is induced across different individuals.

The best stories can be identified by the presence of the chemical oxytocin.  This chemical has a range of intensely emotional effects.  It makes us more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.  Some have called it the “love hormone,” others the “bonding hormone.”  It is called the “moral molecule” because it makes us more sensitive to social cues around us.  It often makes more inclined to gel others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.  Therefore it is the neurochemical responsible for empathy.  Our pituitary gland  releases oxytocin when a good story is heard.  It is interesting to note that Descartes thought the the pituitary gland housed the soul.

People were shown a short film of  a true story of a two-year-old with brain cancer, whom we’ll call Ben, and his father, whom we’ll call John Doe.  John Doe’s father’s life is pretty ordinary until he learns that Ben has cancer.  Ben does not know that he has brain cancer.    The father is conflicted because he knows that Ben will die within months, but his sadness merely deprives Ben of Joy he could otherwise have.  Ben’s father finally finds the courage within himself to be joyful around Ben, genuinely grateful for the gift of the child’s brief life.  The conflict is resolved and Ben’s father is changed.

This film has been shown to hundreds of people.  The oxytocin levels in their bloom were measured both before and after viewing the film.  The film make the oxytocin levels rise.  The research subjects are paid for their time and for being stuck twice with needles to draw blood, yet they were very willing to give some or all of their money to a childhood cancer charity, depending on how much oxytocin their pituitary glands had released.

Another film was shown to a different audience depicting Ben and his father visiting a zoo.  Ben has no hair and his father refers to him as “miracle boy.”  It is clear that we are watching a father and son, and that the son has cancer.  The film has a narrative of them doing a variety of things at the zoo, but there is no story.  The brain chemistry of the viewers did not vary and they did not become notably generous to the charity.  This film had no impact.