Unmasked: the elixir of human bonding

Hormone that makes mothers and babies bond also helps us to remember strangers' faces, study finds

It is said to be a love hormone that helps breastfeeding mothers to bond with their babies, as well as a "trust serum" secreted in the brain to inspire confidence in anyone from a lover to a business partner.

Now scientists have found the first experimental evidence to show that the hormone oxytocin plays an important role in helping us to remember the face of a stranger, a feat critical for maintaining the cohesion of society.

A study has found that men who sniffed a nasal spray containing oxytocin perform significantly better on a facial memory test where they have to recognise the faces of strangers a day after they had inhaled the hormone.

Scientists believe the findings provide strong support for the idea that oxytocin acts as a ubiquitous chemical glue within the brain to cement the personal relationships that are critical for the peaceful co-existence of individuals living within a social group.

The results will no doubt attract the attention of companies ranging from perfume manufacturers keen to develop the ultimate elixir of love, to marketing organisations hoping to spray department stores with trust-inducing scents to revive flagging consumers with feel-good factors. Oxytocin is secreted in the brain during lovemaking and is believed to play a key role in strengthening monogamous bonding of males and females, but until now no one has shown that it can improve the ability of the brain to remember faces.

The scientists found the inhalation of oxytocin only stimulated the part of the memory system tasked with recollecting faces, without affecting the system for remembering objects. "This is the first study to show oxytocin improves recognition for faces, but not for non-social stimuli," said Peter Klaver of the University of Zurich, who took part in the study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience. "Recognising a familiar face is a crucial feature of successful social interaction. In this study, we investigated the systematic effect of oxytocin on social memory in humans."

A group of 44 male volunteers were split in two, with each team asked either to sniff oxytocin, or a harmless nasal spray, three times in each nostril over a period of two minutes. A day later they were asked to identify faces they had seen briefly the day before.

Those given oxytocin correctly identified 46 per cent of faces, while those taking the placebo managed 36 per cent. The 10 per cent improvement was statistically significant, Dr Klaver said: "It shows that human memory for faces can be improved by oxytocin."

Oxytocin is a small molecule called a peptide. It is released by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain and is found within the brain and other selected sites of the body – such as the nipples of lactating women.

The latest findings support the idea that oxytocin is critical component of the system that stimulates the recognition, thereby the trust, of strangers. "Some suggest oxytocin could be used to improve trust in communities, but the mechanism of how it works may be too specific for this," Dr Klaver said.

Explainer: Oxytocin

Oxytocin is produced in the brain as well as being released by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. It enters the bloodstream and affects other parts of the body, such as the nipples of lactating women, where it induces the release of milk. Many parts of the brain are affected by it, including the amygdala, which is involved in emotions such as fear and sexual behaviour. The hormone was isolated in 1953 and given to women to induce labour. It is released into the blood of both sexes during orgasm.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence