When you see an attractive face, a warm glow may ensue. When you see an ugly or threatening face, just the opposite occurs. Studies in animals have made it clear that a hormone from the pituitary gland, oxytocin, modulates such responses. In animals, oxytocin helps them decide whether to shun another animal or to approach for such purposes as socialization and mating. Oxytocin promotes approach behavior and suppresses avoidance.
If the same processes occur in humans (we use oxytocin too), then it should be reflected in how we react emotionally to others. Well, it does, and that is why it is sometimes called the “love hormone.” The best documentation for such action is that oxytocin is released in great amounts when a mother gives birth and increases the mother-infant bond. How robust this effect is in people is not clear.
Oxytocin could be important for remembering other people. In an experiment in
During the initial exposure (encoding) no differences were found in ratings for approachability (likeability) of either the faces or inanimate objects. Likewise, no oxytocin-related differences were seen for the emotional subcategories of positive, negative, or neutral, although everyone had more difficulty in remembering emotionally neutral faces. Gender of the faces did not seem to make much difference. Maybe this lack of effect was due to insufficient dosage (a single spray of three puffs may not be enough).
Where the drug effect was evident was in recognition memory of the faces. Oxytocin also increased the ability to realize that a new face had not been in the initial encoding group on the learning day.
Other studies have shown that oxytocin has a general pro-social effect, such as trust, for example.Take home message? One thought is the next time you want to attract someone, you might make yourself more memorable if you offered them some nasal spray laced with oxytocin. Of course that is too socially awkward. But one thing that is more practical is to take a few snorts of spray before going to a meeting or conference where you need to remember the new people you meet. Novartis already makes such a spray (Syntocinon). However, the drug’s medical use is to induce labor in pregnant women.
My second thought is there may something to the old saying about “love at first sight.” Certain faces may, for unknown reasons, cause a surge in endogenous secretion of oxytocin in the brain of the viewer and thus give that face a greater impact. Women knew all along the importance of having a memorable face; that’s why they wear makeup and fuss over their hair.