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 And here I thought free will was responsible for sin... 
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Joined: Fri Jul 06, 2012 8:13 am
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New post And here I thought free will was responsible for sin...
... and instead it's simply a lack of hormones. :roll:


The hormone that makes us good or evil

Oliver Burkeman
Published: September 6, 2012 - 3:00AM

The American academic Paul Zak is renowned among his colleagues for two things he does to people disconcertingly soon after meeting them. The first is hugging: seeing me approach across the library of his club, in midtown Manhattan, he springs to his feet, ignoring my outstretched hand, and enfolds me in his arms. The second is sticking needles in their arms to draw blood.

I escape our encounter unpunctured, but plenty of people don't: Zak's work, which he refers to as ''vampire studies'', has involved extracting blood from a bride and groom on their wedding day; from people who have just had massages, or been dancing; from Quakers, before and after their silent worship; and from tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea as they prepare for traditional rituals.

That all these people submit so willingly to his needle may have something to do with the fact that he is charm personified. A square-jawed, 50-year-old Californian with good hair, a sunny disposition and a media-friendly nickname (''Dr Love''), Zak gives every impression of having been constructed in a laboratory charged with creating the ideal author of a new buzz book - The Moral Molecule.

What drives Zak's hunger for human blood is his interest in the hormone oxytocin, about which he has become one of the world's most prominent experts. Oxytocin, long known as a female reproductive hormone - it plays a central role in childbirth and breastfeeding - emerges from Zak's research as something much more all-embracing: the ''moral molecule'' behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love, ''a social glue'', as he puts it, ''that keeps society together''. The subtitle of his book, ''The new science of what makes us good or evil'', gives a sense of the scale of his ambition, which involves nothing less than explaining whole swaths of philosophical and religious questions by reference to a single chemical in the bloodstream.

Being treated decently, it turns out, causes people's oxytocin levels to rise, which in turn prompts them to behave more decently, while experimental subjects given an artificial oxytocin boost - by means of an inhaler - behave more generously and trustingly. And it's not solely because of its effects on humans that oxytocin is known as ''the cuddle hormone'': for example, male meadow voles, normally roguishly promiscuous in their interactions with female meadow voles, become passionately monogamous when their oxytocin levels are raised in the lab.

The aforementioned wedding took place at a country house in south-west England where Zak set up a temporary research station. He took blood samples, before and after the wedding vows from the bride and groom, close family members and various friends in attendance then flew his spoils - 156 test tubes packed in dry ice - to his laboratory at Claremont University, in southern California. There he discovered the results he had been expecting: the ceremony caused oxytocin to rise in the guests. And it did so in spookily subtle ways: the bride recorded the highest increase, followed by close family members, then less closely involved friends, ''in direct proportion to the likely intensity of emotional engagement in the event''. (Only the groom bucked the trend: testosterone interferes with oxytocin, and his testosterone was surging.) Mapping the wedding's oxytocin levels gave rise, in Zak's vivid phrase, to a human ''solar system'' with the bride as the sun, the hormone finely calibrated to the emotional warmth each guest felt. ''It was amazing,'' Zak recalls. ''Just this perfect sense of how oxytocin attunes to the environment.''

The starting point was a persistent mystery in Zak's original field, economics: time and again in experiments people behave more generously than traditional economic models predict they should. A classic demonstration of this is known as the Trust Game, in which pairs of participants communicate with each other via computer terminals: they never meet and have no idea who the other person is.

Person A is given £10 ($15) then invited to send a portion of it electronically to person B. Person A has a motive for doing so: according to the rules, which both players know about, any money A sends to B will triple in value, whereupon B will have the option of sending some of it back as a thank-you. According to conventional notions of rational behaviour, the game should break down before it has begun. Person B, acting selfishly, has no reason to give any money back - and, knowing this, person A shouldn't send any over in the first place.

Yet, in trials of the game, 90 per cent of A-people send money and 95 per cent of B-people send some back. Analysis of the oxytocin in their bloodstreams reveals what is going on: by sending money to person B, person A is giving a sign of trust - and being on the receiving end of a sign of trust, it emerges, causes oxytocin to increase, motivating more generous behaviour in return.

And it is not just receiving money that causes people to feel oxytocin's warm glow: in other studies Zak has conducted, random windfalls don't cause nearly so much of it to be released. What counts is being trusted: trust in one person triggers oxytocin in the other, which triggers more trustworthy behaviour, and so on, in a virtuous circle. ''Well, that's except for the 5 per cent of people who are 'unconditional non-reciprocators','' says Zak, referring to the consistent minority of people who seem immune to this cycle. ''What we call them in my lab is 'bastards'.''

These findings have striking implications for how we think about morality. Economists tend to pride themselves on being hardheaded realists: morality might be a nice set of ideas about how people ought to behave, this way of thinking goes, but economics is the analysis of how they really behave, motivated not by stirring ethical values but by the desire for personal gain. Perhaps ironically, religions tend to share a similar view: that moral conduct doesn't come naturally but instead needs to be imposed through fear or the promise of reward. Zak himself was raised in a staunch Catholic household: his mother, he likes to say, took him out of Catholic school because it wasn't strict enough and ''based her child-rearing on the assumption that unselfish, moral behaviour was impossible without the ever-present threat of punishment, the more terrifying the better''. Yet the fact that natural selection has given us oxytocin - a mechanism that allows us to be instinctively trusting and kind - suggests that what most of us think of as ''moral'' is, in fact, part of how we have evolved to be.

''Human beings are almost the only animals who regularly want to be around strange members of our species,'' Zak says. '' It's fun. But to be able to do that, we have to have something in our heads that says: 'Oliver is safe, Bob is not safe.' And that's oxytocin - this very old, evolutionarily ancient molecule'' that helps us respond to being trusted with just the right degree of reciprocal trust in response. Zak's earlier work had established that trust is a crucial precondition for economic prosperity (to conduct transactions, you have to be able to trust others) but also a result of it (once you're no longer fighting for basic subsistence, you can afford to trust more). Now, he had located the biological mechanism through which this all worked. The Golden Rule - treat others as you'd like to be treated - is, Zak writes, ''a lesson that the body already knows''.

From that follows … well, everything. ''To me, this is the basis for civilisation: a bunch of strangers living together,'' he says. ''And, once you have civilisation, you can have specialisation of labour; you can have surplus; you can have university professors, and priests, because now you can afford that, and then you get the advancement of knowledge.''

This talk of mixing science and morality prompts suspicion in some quarters: just because something is ''natural'' doesn't mean it is ''right'', in an ethical sense, and efforts to derive codes of moral conduct from science rarely end well. Moreover, it is unclear what Zak means when he says oxytocin, or the lack of it, ''makes'' us good or evil. This is the same problem as with news reports about scientists discovering the part of the brain ''responsible for'' risk-taking, or greed, or a belief in God: just because you have found the biological underpinnings of some phenomenon, it does not necessarily follow that you have found ''the real cause'' of it. Still, none of that undermines the most potent aspect of Zak's work, which is the pragmatic one. If oxytocin is the mechanism through which moral action takes place, that holds out the possibility - a cause of either optimism or alarm, depending on how you look at it - that by manipulating oxytocin we might boost the levels of trust, generosity and ultimately happiness in ourselves and the world at large.

It took Zak two years of wrangling with the US Food and Drug Administration and university ethics panels to gain approval to use oxytocin inhalers on experimental subjects. (In the meantime, he got around the restriction by experimenting on himself under the watchful eye of his wife, a neurologist.) But while the red tape was convoluted, the conclusions were not: in exercises such as the Trust Game, oxytocin-loaded participants displayed much greater levels of trust and generosity than those who used inhalers filled with a placebo.

All of which would seem to raise some troubling questions: what is to stop car dealers, say, pumping oxytocin into showrooms, or politicians using it when canvassing? (A company called Vero Labs already markets an oxytocin spray it calls ''Liquid Trust'', aimed both at salespeople and single men on the prowl.) But Zak waves the matter away: it is incredibly hard to get enough oxytocin into the bloodstream, which is why he has to get his subjects to force such large amounts of vapour up their noses; using it covertly would never work. Sure, oxytocin can be stimulated in subtle ways to serve other people's agendas, ''but they're already doing that. Why do you think they have cute puppies in toilet paper commercials? To make you feel good.''

Meanwhile, Zak says, we should all be doing more to boost oxytocin in benign ways. He recommends a minimum of eight hugs a day (pets count, too); massage and even soppy movies seem to work: he has done the blood tests.

Interactions on Twitter and Facebook seem to lead to oxytocin surges, offering a powerful retort to the argument that social media is killing real human interaction: in hormonal terms, it appears, the body processes it as an entirely real kind of interaction.

Ultimately, one imagines, the oxytocin-savvy citizens of Zak's of utopia would focus on charity work and community groups, play with their pets and watch romantic comedies. They would be touchy-feely and hug each other all the time - which makes you wonder whether in the modern world the prescriptions of Dr Love might be a bit of a lost cause.

Guardian News & Media

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On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.

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Thu Sep 06, 2012 9:52 am
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New post Re: And here I thought free will was responsible for sin...
"Oxytocin, long known as a female reproductive hormone - it plays a central role in childbirth and breastfeeding - emerges from Zak's research as something much more all-embracing: the ''moral molecule'' behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love..."

Well, I have to wonder about all the women who have either naturally or artificially had large surges of oxytocin pumped into them "when their hour of sorrow has come" and whether they felt proportionally overwhelmed with increasing feelings of devotion, affection and lurve towards their spouse. Or maybe not. 8)

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On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.

- St. Robert Bellarmine


Thu Sep 06, 2012 10:07 am
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New post Re: And here I thought free will was responsible for sin...
Katie wrote:
What counts is being trusted: trust in one person triggers oxytocin in the other, which triggers more trustworthy behaviour, and so on, in a virtuous circle. ''Well, that's except for the 5 per cent of people who are 'unconditional non-reciprocators','' says Zak, referring to the consistent minority of people who seem immune to this cycle. ''What we call them in my lab is 'bastards'.''


LOL!

And not just in his lab!

Oxytocin is used to bring on labour. I know for a fact that Katie's comment is accurate... :)

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Thu Sep 06, 2012 2:49 pm
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New post Re: And here I thought free will was responsible for sin...
All this time I thought my mis-behaving offspring were just being plain old bad when it's been a case of having borne a whole tribe of oxytocin-challenged people. :o

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On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.

- St. Robert Bellarmine


Thu Sep 06, 2012 2:54 pm
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New post Re: And here I thought free will was responsible for sin...
OldD,

I was hoping you'd have a comment on this?

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On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.

- St. Robert Bellarmine


Wed Sep 26, 2012 3:06 pm
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New post Re: And here I thought free will was responsible for sin...
I had a mind to comment way back but a burst of oxytocin overwhelmed me and I decided to let someone else have first go.

First up; I do not think that free will is "responsible" for sin because:
that would subtly imply that God is the cause of sin by giving Men and Angels free will. As far as I know the only way to do sin is to wilfully choose something that one knows to be wrong. (Getting all flustered over imaginary "wrongs", as in scruples, is not in discussion here).

The act of willing cannot be sinful because that's what wills (not you, Willsy) are for. Wills are necessary to make it possible for one to seek goodness and happiness, for without that ability Creation would be just some monsterous machine.

Where sin enters the picture is where a "lesser" or imagined good is chosen that negates a greater or real good. For example; one might engage in lying slander against his neighbour... the imagined good being that that it will increase his social prestige or influence, perhaps. The real goods negated or refused (the sinful part of the willing) are Justice, Truth, Charity......

As far as this guy's oxytocin "experiments" are concerned (I allow that his reported results are real because I know of nothing to discredit them) I am not at all surprised as I was already of the opinion that the soul and body are inextricably interdependent in the make-up of Man. I would only question his implied conclusion that the chicken came before the egg (or was it that the egg came before the chicken?).

I could have some more on this later. It's somewhat related to another thread on another forum. However, for now, it's someone else's turn.


Thu Sep 27, 2012 7:20 am
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New post Re: And here I thought free will was responsible for sin...
Oldavid wrote:

First up; I do not think that free will is "responsible" for sin because:
that would subtly imply that God is the cause of sin by giving Men and Angels free will. As far as I know the only way to do sin is to wilfully choose something that one knows to be wrong. (Getting all flustered over imaginary "wrongs", as in scruples, is not in discussion here).


Oh OldD, you dear OldD pedant. I meant what you sez. You should know by now that I don't always express myself beautifully and perfectly. That's the luxury of my little forum. None of those exacting rules of precision that are so necessary and useful in them Theology Rooms over yonder. :)

Good post, btw. I will read it again when I've more time and see if I can pick you on something... :lol:

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On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.

- St. Robert Bellarmine


Thu Sep 27, 2012 6:02 pm
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