June 7th, 2016
Check the acknowledgments on any books and the last sentence will always be something like “Finally, I would like to thank XXX, who was always there cheering me up and stood by me through the good times and bad”. It’s no surprise, we have all been there: you are so grateful to your partner for being so supportive through hard times. You cannot even imagine how you could have managed it without him/her. After all, compassion and empathy is the foundation of love, and love is what makes us human, right? Wrong. Well, at least compassion and empathy indicate advanced cognitive abilities! Wrong, again.
Consolation is a more primitive and less cognitive capacity than what we believe, that’s what a study from James P. Burkett and other researchers concluded. The research, which has just been published in Science, proved that cute little -and apparently dumb- rodents called Microtus ochrogaster can perceive when their partners are under pressure and act accordingly. Basically, when Mrs. Ochrogaster is stressed or anxious, Mr. Ochrogaster feels for her and takes care of his spouse and vice versa. Exactly like us. So what triggers this empathetic behaviour? The research team was craving for answers and hypothesised one specific hormone may be involved. So they examined again what Mr. & Mrs. Ochrogaster do when one of them is distressed, but this time the consoling partner was injected with an antagonist of the “empathy hormone”. This antagonist would produce the opposite effect and turn the supportive into an insensitive better (?) half. If their hypothesis would have been wrong, the rodent would still cuddle the beloved and apprehensive spouse. Instead, they were right: the hormone involved was exactly what they imagined! Are you guessing what the magical hormone is?
A song from a few years ago went something like this “Call it dumb, call it luck, call it love or whatever you call it but everywhere I go I keep oxytocin in my wallet”. You are right, the song was not exactly like that, but oxytocin was a plausible option. In fact, this hormone is what makes you desperately want to grab your partner’s hand, and the same one that makes you wear rose-coloured glasses, even if your partner is a dork… That is why some people call it the “love hormone”.
Does this mean that oxytocin will turn you into a sort of benevolent being, no matter what? Maybe not, let me tell you how the experiment on Microtus ochrogaster rodents developed. The rodents truly felt for their partners and took care of distressed family members, however they did not seem to show the same empathy towards strangers, oxytocin or not, even from the same species. Even more, similar rodents, Microtus pennsylvanicus, had a totally different behaviour and just didn’t even try to comfort their better halves. Beware: Mr. and Mrs. Pennsylvanicus’ marriage is not in crisis and they are a lovely couple, they just grew in different evolutionary and social contexts that did not encourage them to be so responsive. Macaques, that you probably believe are smarter than these tiny rodents, behave in the same exact way. This means that showing compassion has not much to do with intelligence. At least you can now explain why your dork partner is such a clever person but not so warmhearted, while your lover is so perceptive but sharp as a bowling ball… What about getting an oxytocin shot for Valentine’s Day?
Burkett, J., Andari, E., Johnson, Z., Curry, D., de Waal, F., & Young, L. (2016). Oxytocin-dependent consolation behavior in rodents Science, 351 (6271), 375-378 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4785love, microtus Ochrogaster, oxytocin, valentine’s day