To borrow a phrase: love works in mysterious ways. We are born to love and, as it turns out, love and affection are necessary for both optimal positive emotional and physical development. And to be honest, nothing feels better than giving your loved one a warm embrace –or being on the receiving end.
Role of Oxytocin
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter the hypothalamus produces and the pituitary gland secretes. Scientists first identified and observed it in 1906. (1) Oxytocin is essential in the process of childbirth in mammals, stimulating uterine contractions and lactation. Later studies found its role a much deeper and far-reaching one that affects social interaction and bonding between people. Scientists call it “the love hormone“.
As Psychology Today explains “…As a facilitator of bonding among those who share similar characteristics, the hormone fosters distinctions between in-group and out-group members, and sets in motion favoritism toward in-group members and prejudice against those in out-groups. Ongoing research on the hormone is a potent reminder of the complexity of biological and psychological systems.“ (2)
This special hormone is present in both sexes, stimulating all aspects of the reproductive process, beginning with trust and sexual arousal. (3, 4) Oxytocin stimulates pleasure and reward centers and is the neurological basis for social bonding, especially with the people closest to you. The brain rewards us for living with others. (5) Oxytocin increases feelings of trust, which are intrinsic to all close personal relationships. (6)
Humans are Social Animals
Some animals are solitary but humans are not. Social inclusion and interaction are necessary for our survival. This becomes evident when we become socially isolated, starting with depression and often culminating in disease. The neurobiological mechanisms of love and attachment are a wonderful circle: we fall in love, have a baby, raise the child with love and affection, and the child continues the process. The attraction and bonding between us are the physiological and emotional manifestations of our need to reproduce to perpetuate the species.
What’s more, oxytocin is essential for embryonic brain development (7). More specifically, it plays a role in blood vessel formation in the pituitary gland, which controls several physiological processes such as stress, growth, and reproduction (8).