The Scientific American’s Mind Matters has a special on whether key bonding hormone oxytocin boosts our ability to understand other people’s beliefs, intentions and desires.
Oxytocin seems to play a role in bonding between mother and child, and between romantic couples.
The article discusses recent research that found that using an oxytocin nasal spray boosted participant’s performance on a task that measured ‘theory of mind‘ – the ability to infer other people’s beliefs from their actions.
Like ‘mirror neurons‘, oxytocin is something which is currently overhyped but still genuinely interesting.
The article is by psychologist Prof Jennifer Bartz and psychiatrist Prof Eric Hollander and discusses this new study, and some of the theories that attempt to explain how oxytocin has its effect:
Both our lab and the Domes lab have found that oxytocin facilitates the processing of social information gathered through at least two different sensory modalities — that is, through both hearing and vision. This raises questions about just how oxytocin actually facilitates social cognition and theory of mind.
Previous research indicates that oxytocin plays a role in regulating stress and fear reactivity. Thus oxytocin may facilitate theory of mind by reducing the social anxiety that is inherent in many social encounters — and which is felt keenly by many individuals with autism.
Another possibility is that oxytocin may increase motivation to attend to social cues by reinforcing social information processing.