Is oxytocin in the brain the cause of genius?
Anyone who has ever resolved a stubborn problem with a sudden, blazing flash of useful insight might wonder why such solutions present themselves to us at one time and not another — and why some of us are more disposed to have a 'Eureka Moment' than others.
According to new research, the answer could lie in the human hormone oxytocin, which has been used to help induce birth for more than a century, and more recently to combat the effects of autism in children.
The latest studies indicate that oxytocin could increase our capacity to make imaginative leaps and to think creatively, while at the same time diminishing our ability for rational analysis — a potential explanation for the oft-quoted 'line between madness and genius'.
Spread over six case studies across universities in Singapore, Israel and Amsterdam, the research shows evidence of a connection between levels of oxytocin and instances of creative cognition in test subjects.
In one of the studies, the subjects were categorized according to the Temperament and Character Index (TCI-R), which identifies four tendencies: 'novelty seeking', 'harm avoidance', 'reward dependence', and 'persistence'. Here subjects were asked to rate statements such as 'I get tense and worried in unfamiliar situations' and 'I do things spontaneously'. Analysis found a correlation between levels of oxytocin and a tendency towards novelty-seeking or exploratory behavior.
In the next study, at the University of Haifa, the participants were asked to invent imaginative alternative uses for a given object, such as a button — and once again, researchers observed a link between the subjects' oxytocin levels and the degree of originality and invention shown in their answers.
Finally, 191 male subjects participated in six tests at the University of Amsterdam, taken under the influence of an administered dose of oxytocin nasal spray. Some tests gauged analytical reasoning (such as identifying the common word between three given words), while others tested for imaginative capacity and holistic processing (such as inventing new names for pasta ending with an 'i').
Here as well, oxytocin seemed to reduce capacity for rational analysis while boosting the individual's ability to generate innovative and novel creative connections.
Social and chemical bonds
Like all hormones and neuropeptides, oxytocin operates in concert with other regulatory functions, and has complex relationships with these processes that may not yet be fully understood. Nonetheless, its history as a treatment for the symptoms of autism in children indicate the role that it may have played in our evolution, by allowing us to escape the narrow confines of the necessary tasks at hand and gain a brief but inspiring vision of a different and better world.
Oxytocin also seems to be closely associated with our capacity to socialize and find partners, and with reproduction itself. By the time its molecular structure was first isolated in 1952, oxytocin had been in use as a method of inducing labor for nearly fifty years — and it has also been identified as a pivotal chemical factor in courtship.