Home Pop Culture The argument for oxytocin. Inducing empathy could save the world. But who...

The argument for oxytocin. Inducing empathy could save the world. But who really wants to live in a society where everyone is nice anyway?

Paul Zak believes oxytocin could help give people more empathy. Photograph: Bryce Duffy
Chemical composition of oxytocin.

Judging by the recent disharmony in the world one could be pressed to argue the root of what ails society is the degree of inequity when it comes to the distribution of resources and wealth. Which is to say the canny use of resources, be it labor, capital, land, enterprise and technology should be able to lead to a type of largess that could theoretically placate most individuals sustenance. That of course is easier said and done and whole theories of economic thought have gone into exploring how to fully  optimize the bounty of our collective efforts and how to deal with cyclical and structural shifts that so often cause economic consternation and ultimately social upheaval.

That said, the Guardian has come out with an article positing the notion that if society was ingrained with a bout of empathy it would go a long way in dealing with the way we as a society react to discord and facilitate altruistic virtues that would see the collective rising of our lot.

On the surface such an argument holds some merit. After all, if we as a society could find some degree of enmity and empathy towards our neighbors it could potentially see a recalibration of resources and wealth to those less fortunate or structurally challenged. But that of course belies the idea that at the heart of capitalism, which is what the industrial world suffices on, a society’s ability to create is pinged on the individual incentives of competing outlets to out think each other in creating a pool of wealth. The idea of empathy in creating value to be sure is the antithesis of it.

That however doesn’t dissuade one scientist, American neuro economist (yes the title impresses me too) Paul Zak,who the guardian champions in his belief what ails the world is the lack of empathy. Or to put it another way what could rejuvinate¬† society is the abundant creation of empathy. How you wonder? It involves something called oxytocin, a chemical our brains create in moments of good will and abundance of empathy to our fellow man, colloquially known as the ‘love hormone.’

guardian: “oxytocin is primarily a molecule of social connection. It affects every aspect of social and economic life, from who we choose to make investment decisions on our behalf to how much money we donate to charity. Oxytocin tells us when to trust and when to remain wary, when to give and when to hold back.”

Which presents an interesting quandary: if our brains naturally produce just enough of the good stuff to avow ourselves to certain causes and pursuits it follows that it also tempers us from over committing and burdening ourselves as well. Which raises the following question, if nature knows best, why are we willing to temper with it to induce a kind of artificial application of it? After all if we are to believe in the notion of the survival of the fittest and competition breeds excellence aren’t we on some level risking it all just so we can be nice more often? After all, ever heard of the saying- ‘nice guys finish last…?’

Reading through the article one is intrigued to find out that a simple 15 minute massage can lead to a rapid rising of the molecule called oxytocin in our brains. Conversely the author is apt to point out that reducing social income disparities, investing in education and promoting greater freedom could also raise levels of oxytocin. But then again this takes us back to the central question, how does one engender a more freer and productive society in the first place?

Then there’s this:

By the 1970s, scientists had realised that oxytocin was also a neurotransmitter that acted on the limbic system, the brain’s emotional centre. The game-changing insight, however, came from animal studies at the University of Maryland showing that oxytocin played an important role in fostering bonding and monogamous behaviour in prairie voles. In addition, oxytocin has been shown to facilitate nurturing behaviour in mice and rats: when oxytocin was blocked, the rodents stopped caring for their young and displayed signs of “social amnesia.”

All of which raises diabolical questions- if advances in society are often mandated by selfish impulses (a cursory regard of the wild movements of late in the financial markets will show this) how are we to believe a