Now, with oxytocin!

I’ve been laid low this past week with something flu-like, drowned in almost unbearable congestion impervious to all known medications and folk remedies. It’s remarkable that with the advanced medical science and engineering of the past century, there’s no relief for this common sort of affliction.

Perhaps appropriately, a viral assault turns out to be a great time to catch up on molecular biology. In my woozy state I plowed through two strangely juxtaposed reports. The first, a New York Times Magazine summary of the state of research on depression, talked about some new ideas that may explain the illness better and that certainly put the kibosh on the simplistic hypothesis that depression results from having too little of the neurotransmitter serotonin in one’s brain, period, end of story. The seriously mixed results of “miracle” SSRI drugs like Prozac and Zoloft have forced researchers to think up much more complex and subtle mechanisms for depression. The clarion call “Set the serotonin free!” has fizzled.

But just when you thought the science of psychology had returned to a more cautious, less reductive approach, here comes the Wall Street Journal‘s disappointing weekend section, with its excerpt from a book by Paul J. Zak about oxytocin. The article’s title: “The Trust Molecule.”

History is littered with straightforward and often simplistic hypotheses put forward to explain complex phenomena or solve intractable problems. Vitamin C, cold fusion, the “gay gene,” and inhibiting serotonin re-uptake are just a few from recent times. Now Zak, an economist who studies moral behavior, ventures into the crossroads of psychology and molecular biology with the thesis that oxytocin, best known as a female reproductive hormone, has not only an effect but a decisive one on caring, generosity, and trust.

He’s found evidence that a rise in oxytocin coincides with feelings that engender those warm, cuddly phenomena, and it goes both ways, leading Zak to this happy formulation: “If you detect the makings of an endless loop that can feed back onto itself, creating what might be called a virtuous circle – and ultimately a more virtuous society – you are getting the idea.”

Now, I’m all for the interplay of economics and psychology. Economics is in some ways the study of how we relate to one another; hence the more we understand it the more light we might shed on our psychology, and vice versa. If someone like Zak wants to tread into the waters of science and apply a fresh perspective, he’s welcome to do so.

But when I see phrases like “trust hormone” and “moral molecule” and overblown summations like “In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large,” my red flags shoot up like startled meerkats. Even the word “elixir” is loaded, bathed in mystical mush. Will we ever learn? Things are never that simple, not things about human beings, anyway, whether it’s our bodies or our minds.

How long it will take before we see an article splintering popular early-21st-century theories about oxytocin and trust, like the Times‘s piece on serotonin and depression? Probably a few years at least – it’s been almost two decades since Listening to Prozac. But wait for it. It’ll be here.