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
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
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: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas