The same hormone that is elevated during sex, brings on labor pains during childbirth, stimulates the production of breast milk, and aids mother-child bonding may also help men get more in touch with other people's emotions.
In a fascinating study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, volunteers were given an inhaled nasal spray containing the hormone, then shown photos that were likely to trigger emotions, such as "a crying child, a girl hugging her cat, and a grieving man." Half the men got the spray, and another half received a placebo:
Those who had the hormone spray had markedly higher levels of empathy — of a similar magnitude to those only usually seen in women who are naturally more sensitive to the feelings of others.
Women's hormones get blamed for a lot of things, but it seems our oxytocin is a help, not a hindrance. But don't expect to be able to rush out and buy the cuddle drug for your boyfriend just yet; there are far more pressing applications for this potential psychiatric medication first, so read more.
The most promising results of the study suggest that oxytocin spray could help treat schizophrenia, autism, and other conditions that cause social withdrawal and a lack of empathy. That's because patients given the spray were also better able to respond to positive and negative facial feedback, suggesting it could help people who have difficulty responding to social cues.
Do you think that women are fundamentally better at empathy than men?