According to the research, the release of oxytocin not only promotes social bonding and helps childbirth in women, but also stimulates increased feelings of religiousness.
A research team from Duke University in North Carolina carried out a study in which they boosted levels of oxytocin in middle-aged men and found increased self-reported spirituality on two separate measures and also that this effect remained significant a week later.
A control group who received a placebo did not report higher levels of spirituality.
Those who received the hormone also reported more positive emotions during meditation.
Patty Van Cappallen, a social psychologist and the lead author of the study said: “Spirituality and meditation have each been linked to health and well-being in previous research.
“We were interested in understanding biological factors that may enhance those spiritual experiences,” she told the university's newspaper Duke Today.
“Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs.”
The results were published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Oxytocin is produced naturally in the hypothalamus, and previous research has indicated the hormone may play a role in promoting empathy, trust, social bonding and altruism.
The group who received oxytocin were more likely to report that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has meaning and purpose.
This remained true after taking into account whether the participant said they belonged to an organised religion or not.
The participants who received the hormone also gave more positive responses to statements including “all life is interconnected” and “there is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people”.
They also reported more positive emotions including awe, gratitude, inspiration, love, hope, interest and serenity.
The results provide the first experimental evidence that spirituality appears to be supported by Oxytocin.
But Ms Van Cappellen warned the findings should not be over-generalised.
“Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” she said.
“However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”
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