In 1984, biologist E. O. Wilson made a suggestion for which a lesser scientist would have been ridiculed, or more likely, completely ignored. Wilson proposed the biophilia hypothesis—that humans have an innate tendency to focus on life and other life forms. Science will bristle with alarm at the word “innate”, unless you can give the specific coordinates on the genome where the behavior arises out of DNA.
Wilson based his biophilia idea on his own experience watching insects from the time of his earliest memory. Watching the creatures, or even scanning the forest floor looking for them, he would find himself in a timeless state of concentration, riveted and receptive to minutiae and detail. He called this state the “hunter’s trance”, connecting it to the anecdotal reports of many hunters and argued that the ability to enter such a trance is connected to humans’ enormous evolutionary success. When they left the forest for a life on the savannah, hominids who entered the “hunter’s trance” were able to learn the habits of carnivorous predators as well as the animals they hunted. Those who didn’t have the ability were most likely to get eaten.
It’s a nice thought. There’s a certain logic to it. But it’s not science. Or, at least it wasn’t in 1984 when Wilson made the suggestion and it wasn’t particularly well-received. Where would such a trance come from? Why would the tendency to concentrate on other living things be innate?
Enter oxytocin, a hormone best known for starting childbirth and inducing lactation. It turns out that it does a lot more than that. It is secreted at the base of the brain, in the hypothalamus, and the entire nervous system is sensitive to its effects. Oxytocin production is stimulated by estrogen, but it is not a female-only hormone, because men produce it as well.
Oxytocin lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, quiets the brain’s fear centers, and suppresses the production of stress hormones. Childbirth begins with a flood of oxytocin that contracts the uterus and stimulates milk production. Nursing stimulates the production of more oxytocin, as does the sight or sound of the baby. New mothers will even produce oxytocin at the mention of their baby’s name or upon seeing a photograph. It’s oxytocin that puts new mothers in the brain-addled state that allows them to spend hours gazing at their babies, finding new and fascinating details in their faces and tiny bodies. The equivalent of a “hunter’s trance” in the mother ensures survival for the otherwise helpless infant.
All mammals produce oxytocin. Rats injected with oxytocin will engage in social behaviors with other rats, even in stressful situations where they would ordinarily flee one another. When injected with an oxytocin blocker, rats who had been familiar with one another no longer recognized each other under any circumstances, although they could still do their typical maze-running tricks. When rats are gently stroked, they release oxytocin. Praire voles establish a lifetime pair bond by lying quietly next to each other for hours as their oxytocin levels mount.
Oxytocin could be the reason why we have pets and domesticated animals. When humans and dogs have friendly interactions with one another, the oxytocin level of both the human and the dog nearly double.
Are you feeling stressed and jittery? Overly-anxious. An oxytocin rush could put you back on the map. You can get it by gazing into the eyes of any creature. Even a creature in a picture.