The same hormone that helps mothers bond with their newborns may also enhance feelings of spirituality, a new study suggests.
It’s been called the “love hormone” and the “cuddle chemical,” but doctors and scientists know it as oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland during times of love and bonding.
A recent study spearheaded by Duke University social psychologist Patty Van Cappellen found that participants who received doses of oxytocin reported a greater sense of spirituality than those who received a placebo.
“Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs,” Van Cappellen said in a statement.
For research purposes, the study defined spirituality as a sense of connection to a higher power or to the world that gives meaning to people’s lives.
Eighty-three men between the ages of 35 to 64 participated in the study. Each participant received either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo, administered through a nasal spray.
Researchers found that those who received oxytocin were more likely to report feeling that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has meaning and purpose. They were also more likely to give higher ratings to statements like, “All life is interconnected” and “There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people.”
Participants also listened to a guided meditation, after which those who received oxytocin reported experiencing more positive emotions like awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, love and serenity than those who received a placebo.
Participants who received oxytocin were more likely to feel awe and gratitude during meditation than those who received a placebo.
The study’s results held true regardless of whether the participant reported belonging to an organized religion or not, and they remained consistent a week after the hormone and placebo were administered.
Van Cappellen noted that the results of the study could only be applied to men given that the research subjects were all males. Oxytocin produces slightly different results in men and women, she said, and thus further studies should investigate the hormone’s role on women’s spirituality.
Even among men, the effect might not be uniform. The study also showed that oxytocin has a stronger spiritual effect on people with a particular variant of the CD38 gene, which regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain.
“Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” Van Cappellen said. “However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”
But Van Cappellen isn’t alone in her findings. Previous studies have shown oxytocin to have a profound impact on spirituality, as well as generosity, altruism, and empathy. Oxytocin has also been shown to play a role in experiences of spiritual transformation.
But it has a dark side, too.
A 2010 study of Dutch males out of the University of Amsterdam found that male subjects who received a dose of oxytocin were more likely to express ethnocentric prejudice and xenophobia than those who received a placebo.
Luckily, spirituality isn’t bound by hormones alone. It’s how we choose to define our spirituality ― whether as a connection to all creation on our global home or loyalty only to those who look, act and believe as we do ― that makes all the difference.