Thursday, October 31, 2013

Oxytocin and Emotional Bonding

We've now discussed the science behind five of the "Six Remarkable Effects of Tantra" that I described in one of my first posts:
  • Prolonged and much more pleasurable pre-orgasmic phase
  • The “Tantric high,” a wave of pleasure verging at times on intoxication
  • Extended/repeated/different/better/more intense orgasms
  • Intense emotional bonding with one’s partner
  • Extension of the sense of self to include the partner/“becoming one person”
  • Transcendence of self/feeling at one with the world or cosmos
The fourth one, intense emotional bonding, got skipped because it's not related to any specific phase or technique, but rather to the whole Tantric ritual. To make up for that omission, I’m going to explore it in some depth over the next few posts. Once again, we will find some intriguing answers in the brain systems and chemistry that govern perception and the mind/body interaction.

Oxytocin and Vasopressin

All mammals care for their young, and all share the same primitive chemical and neurological systems for creating a bond between mother and child. To oversimplify, a chemical called oxytocin is produced in pregnancy. As the level of oxytocin rises, it stimulates the breasts to get them ready for nursing. When it reaches a high enough level, it triggers labor and childbirth. The passage of the newborn through the birth canal releases even more oxytocin, as do the sight, smell, sound, and feel of the infant. Suckling at the breast produces additional waves of oxytocin. This triggers the let down of milk and has a number of other effects.

Oxytocin receptors deep within the emotional centers of the brain react to these high levels by triggering an intense feeling of bonding with the infant. We see the effects of this not just in humans but even in the simplest mammals, and our folklore is full of stories of the courage, tenacity, and self-sacrifice with which mothers, both human and animal, nurture and defend their young.

Some mammals, including humans, need two parents to care for the young. For these species, solitary motherhood can be a death sentence for her offspring. It takes two to gather enough food, or one parent must guard the young while the other gathers the food, so the parents have to bond to each other and fathers as well as mothers have to bond to their young.

One of the rules of evolution is that a new ability is much more likely to be based on an old one than to be created from scratch. In this case, evolution borrows the same chemical, oxytocin, and its almost identical chemical twin, vasopressin, and uses them as the main triggers for creating and sustaining the pair bond between parents and the bond between fathers and their children. (Note: The relative importance of these two hormones in humans is still uncertain, so for simplicity I’m just going to refer to them as “oxytocin” from now on, unless it’s important to make a distinction.)

Oxytocin’s role in triggering labor was what first attracted attention to it, and injections of oxytocin are still used to induce labor. (The word literally means "quick birth" in Greek.) But since then, we have discovered a great deal more about it, particularly its role inside the brain. Here are some of things that have been found to cause increases in the level of oxytocin in the brain:
  • Peaceful proximity (being close together and feeling safe)
  • Mutuality (e.g., each expressing a preference for the other’s company)
  • Favorable attention (receiving praise; being the focus of a desired other’s approving gaze and awareness)
  • Generosity (gifts or pleasing actions)
  • Sharing (e.g., food, beverages, gifts, experiences)
  • Intimacy (being alone together, sharing that excludes others, exchanging secrets, demonstrating close private knowledge of each other)
  • Reciprocity (doing something for the other and having them do something for you in return, or vice versa)
  • Consistency (e.g., demonstrating that one is trustworthy and dependable)
  • Mirroring (e.g., adopting similar movements or postures)
  • Physical synchronicity (matching breathing, movement speed, and heart rates)
  • Mental synchronicity (sharing values, preferences, interests, ideas, activities)
  • Bodily contact (nursing, hugging, cuddling, massage, kissing, sex, sleeping together; especially effective when naked and relaxed)
  • Eye gazing (looking into each other's eyes from close range, roughly the distance between a mother's eyes and her baby's eyes when the child is nursing; expression matters - a warm, doting look works best!)
These things have to last for a while in order to have an effect. Brief contact or a shared glance will do little; prolonged cuddling or looking lovingly into each other’s eyes will do a lot more.

As a general rule, the effect is strong only if the stimulus is sustained a lot longer than it would be in a casual encounter. The amount of oxytocin produced in each case also depends on the setting and on the emotional expectations of the individual. Peaceful proximity to someone you don’t like doesn’t do anything; the more desired the other is, the more effect each stimulus has.

Things that block oxytocin production and reduce levels of oxytocin in the brain include:
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Violence
  • Erratic or unpredictable behavior
  • Rigidity and unresponsive posture or expression
  • Inattentiveness (being ignored)
  • Selfishness
  • Distance (both physical and emotional)
In general, this list includes anything that is the opposite of the things that produce oxytocin and anything that produces uncertainty, anxiety, or fear and stimulates excess levels of adrenaline.

Unsurprisingly, the first list sounds like a list of courtship behaviors, and the second list sounds like a list of things to avoid during either dating or a long-term relationship!

These lists also provide a lens through which we can understand the effect of a good Tantra session. After all, a good Tantra experience includes:
  • A safe, secure, private environment
  • High predictability
  • Intense mutuality and attention
  • A lot of synchronous behavior and mirroring, especially during meditation
  • Sharing (food, drink, and experiences)
  • Generosity and reciprocity (giving massages, maximizing partner’s pleasure)
  • Peaceful proximity and lots and lots of skin-to-skin contact
  • Deep intimacy
  • Doing all of these things for an extended period of time
In other words, the classic Tantra experience seems in many ways to have been designed not just to minimize adrenaline production, but to maximize oxytocin production.

It’s important to keep this in mind as you tailor the Tantric ritual to your needs. Go right ahead and make changes, but be sure the result still fits this description!

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