Hey baby – check out my love molecule

There’s a new book out called “The Moral Molecule”; the book argues that the brain’s release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin is responsible for much of mankind’s “good” behavior (being loving and affectionate, caring for children etc.) Oxytocin is known to be released during sex, after giving birth and after consuming ecstasy (“the love drug.”) Conversely, stress inhibits oxytocin release and we know we tend to be jerks while under pressure.

Interestingly there are people who lack functioning oxytocin receptors. What are they like? This interview with the author gets into that question.

…we found about 95 percent of the thousands of people we tested around the world, as you said, even in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, release oxytocin on stimulus, so it seems to be close to a human universal. The 5 percent who don’t are very interesting. In these individuals, they have an ex ante identifiable oxytocin dysfunction that likely comes from the level of the receptors. So what does that mean in normal English? It means if I replace oxytocin, say pharmacologically, in these people, I’m not going to have much of an effect because the receptors are missing or dysfunctional. So it’s not as simple as that. For example, we studied…so about 1 or 2 percent of these individuals are psychopaths, and most psychopaths are born… psychopaths kind of have a bad genetic draw and seem to lack these receptors, and again we can identify them biologically ex ante. You can [also] create psychopaths. We’ve shown in studies of repeatedly sexually abused women that enough abuse will actually shut down the brain circuit that oxytocin activates—potentiates—and if you do that, you have a sort of acquired psychopathology.

So, whether born or made, a dysfunctional oxytocin system can result in psychopathy. This opens up some interesting moral questions. How can we punish psychopaths for their immoral behavior when they lack a moral toolset to behave well? That’s like punishing retarded children for being stupid.

The whole interview is interesting and I think I’ll eventually read the book. It seems clear that oxytocin is, for all intents and purposes, what we refer to as “love.” As a result, I suggest rewriting the classic Beatles song, “All You Need is Love” as follows.

All you need is oxytocin
All you need is oxytocin
All you need is oxytocin, yeah,
and a functioning oxytocin delivery system!

3 Responses to “Hey baby – check out my love molecule”

  1. John Saleeby

    “All You Need Is Love” is not a classic Beatles song. Write a funny Oxytocin version of “A Day In The Life” and you will be cool.

  2. Wil

    I should be clear that I’m not really opposed to punishing retarded children for being stupid, but I recognize that society is.


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