Spirituality is a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves. It is a universal human experience and typically involves a search for meaning in life.
Now researchers find that oxytocin, or love hormone, may support spirituality experiences. The finding is published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Oxytocin is secreted by posterior part of the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. It is called love hormone because it is released when people bond socially. Previous research has shown that even playing with a pet can lead to an oxytocin surge.
In the study, researchers from University of North Carolina and the Ohio State University recruited 83 midlife men. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups. In one group, participants received intranasal oxytocin, whereas in the other group participants received placebo (i.e. things that looked like oxytocin but had no effect).
In another analysis, participants were genotyped to check the occurrence of two genes important for oxytocin signaling: the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR rs53576) and releaser gene CD38 (rs6449182 and rs3796863).
Researchers found that participants who received intranasal oxytocin reported more spirituality experience than participants who received placebo. They felt that they interconnected with other people and living things. This effect lasted about one week.
In addition, intranasal oxytocin improved participants’ positive emotions during meditation. The positive feelings included awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, and love.
Furthermore, the influence of oxytocin on spirituality was moderated by genotypes. People with a particular variant of the CD38 gene showed stronger spirituality. This gene regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain.
Researchers suggest that oxytocin might play an important role in the biological basis of spirituality. In the future, they will test sex differences in the oxytocin effect on spirituality and how oxygen influences different types of spirituality.
Citation: Van Cappellen P, et al. (2016). Effects of oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, nsw078. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw078.
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