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Sex and spirituality, a new entry to oxytocin magic properties

by on 2016/11/23

I have noticed that my last few posts have praised media reporting either in relation to not reacting to articles that had the potential to generate catchy headlines or in working closely with scientists to write accurately about their work.

So I decided to have a look and see if, maybe, the time has come for our blog to be no longer needed. Unfortunately, I did not have to look for too long. All I had to do was to try the always-reliable strategy to type “oxytocin” into Google News and see in which new context or with which miraculous effect this hormone has been involved in the latest research. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (i.e. a small protein required to transmit information across neurons; see the picture for its formula, also a popular tattoo idea) described to be involved in social bonding, sexual reproduction and childbirth. Because of these functions, it is referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone”. These are types of love, happiness and intelligence that you can buy, as oxytocin is available on Amazon.  You can check out the reviews to see how effective it is.

For these same reasons, oxytocin has also been proposed to improve social interactions in individuals with autism. It is therefore easy to see why there is so much research into oxytocin and how its role has been investigated in the context of the most disparate behaviours with related media hype. However, what I came across in my recent Google search was quite beyond the most creative imagination. The headlines I came across referred to a study with the title “Effects of oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to meditation” published a few months ago in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.The study was led by Patty Van Cappallen, based at Duke University. In this study, 83 men at the midlife stage were split into two groups, one received oxytocin as nasal spray (like the one you can buy on Amazon) and the remaining were given a placebo. The first group reported a greater sense of spirituality and more positive emotions during meditation. The press release from Duke University reported pretty much the same findings. Without entering in the scientific merit of the study, my question is; are these results worth a press release and reporting in the media? Probably not, but given the involvement of oxytocin, it is quite easy to see why such a story would generate interest. One would just need to spice up a bit the titles… Well, these are just a few examples, mainly starting with the assumption that oxytocin is THE “love hormone”. I have found Having sex increases spirituality and makes people more likely to believe in God in the Independent, Having more sex makes men more likely to believe in God (well it is a miracle for some of them) in the Daily Mail, to the even more colourful How Sex Can Literally Take You To Heaven By Focusing More on Spirituality, or Oh my God! Having sex makes men more likely to feel religious and many other similar ones could follow.

All media focused their headlines on the effects of having sex on religious experiences, while there was no mention at all of sexual activities in the study. Probably the journalists thought that talking of oxytocin or even the love-hormone nasal spray would have been too boring. Such headlines also entitled the articles to be complemented with study-irrelevant but sex-related pictures with sure effect on securing readers. The Daily Mail piece alone was shared more than 46,000 times on social media and had more than 500 comments for a story that scientifically is pretty much a non-story given that, to start with, we do not even know whether oxytocin can get to the brain through a nasal spray.

I think all our readers will be able to get to their own conclusions on this type of reporting. I would just like to finish with a handy tip: a red flag should go up every time you see oxytocin being mentioned!

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