48 healthy males participated in the experiment. Half received an oxytocin nose spray at the start of the experiment, the other half a placebo. The researchers then showed their test subjects photos of emotionally charged situations in the form of a crying child, a girl hugging her cat, and a grieving man. The test subjects were then invited to express the depth of feeling they experienced for the persons shown.
In summary, René Hurlemann of the University of Bonn was able to state that “significantly higher emotional empathy levels were recorded for the oxytocin group than for the placebo group”, despite the fact that the participants in the placebo group were perfectly able to provide rational interpretations of the facial expressions displayed. The administration of oxytocin simply had the effect of enhancing the ability to experience fellow-feeling. The males under test achieved levels which would normally only be expected in women. Under normal circumstances, the “weak” sex enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to the subject of “empathy”.
In a second experiment, the participants had to use their computers to complete a simple observation test. Correct answers produced an approving face on the screen, wrong ones a disapproving one. Alternatively, the feedback appeared as green (correct) or red (false) circles. Once again, the oxytocin group responded clearly better to the feedback in the form of facial expression than did the placebo group.
One of the effects of the hormone oxytocin is that it triggers labour pains. It also strengthens the emotional bond between a mother and her new-born child. Oxytocin is released on a large scale during an orgasm, too. This neuropeptide is also associated with feelings such as love and trust. Our study has revealed for the first time that emotional empathy is modulated by oxytocin, and that this applies similarly to learning processes with social multipliers, says Hurlemann. This hormone might thus be useful as medication for diseases such as schizophrenia, which are associated with reduced social approachability and social withdrawal.
MEDICA.de; Source: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn