Dark side of the wooing

For the last few years I have attributed the emergence of collaboration and camaraderie in my workshops to the release of oxytocin in the brain during laughter. Its a lovely idea that a few smiles self-organise and interact locally to induce a trickle of laughter that then rolls like waves on the sea across the group picking up energy, self inducing more oxytocin to be released. My greatest achievement then is to link the chemical situation also found during orgasm to the participation in an anecdote circle, which itself reinforces the outburst of chuckles.

Imagine my disappointment this Valentines Day to read that oxytocin’s effects may not be as universally beneficial as was first thought. In the Feb edition of Science News is an article claiming that the ‘love hormone’ has a dark side.

It seems that oxytocin may be an exaggerator of existing feelings, so if those feelings are bad, they will be increased.

This brain-altering substance apparently amplifies whatever social proclivities a person already possesses, whether positive or negative,

says psychologist Jennifer Bartz of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

psychologist Greg Norman reports that:

oxytocin stimulates the heart to beat more in sync with the breathing cycle in people with healthy social lives, but not in people who report constant loneliness.

Much darker and more worrying is the reports that 0ther researchers have found:

oxytocin stimulates greater trust of members of one’s own ethnic group and greater suspicion of other ethnicities.

Over at the John Hopkins Newsletter they add the reasons for this observation:

Ethnocentrism, the view that one’s own group is important and superior to others, often results in prejudice, xenophobia and even violence. However, it can also serve to bind members within a group, given that they have common ground as a basis for cooperation and coordination. For a group to prosper, its members, who are vulnerable to exploitation, need to know who they can trust or mistrust

They give details of several experiments carried out to understand the effects of oxytocin and conclude that it may well:

play a role in the occurrence of conflict and violence between social and ethnic groups.

One of my favourite books ‘Us and Them- understanding your tribal mind’ by David Berreby explored similar ground (without attributing oxytocin) in his theories of human-kinds.

In a society where you meet and work with strangers all the time, getting acquainted is a play of symbols about the human kinds you might share. Any common ground – shared college, shared taste in movies, I-used-to-live-where-you-live, can help. Any drawing of a line that excludes you (“you like westerns? I can’t stand them” is a little dark cloud that asks to be watched for trouble.

Happy Valentines Eve

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