It is generally known that the hormone oxytocin has been dubbed the “love hormone” for its role promoting social bonding, altruism and more. Now new research from Duke University suggests the hormone may also enhance spirituality and religious openness. In the study, men reported a greater sense of spirituality shortly after taking oxytocin and a week later. Participants who took oxytocin also experienced more positive emotions during meditation, claimed lead author Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at DukeDurham, North Carolina, USA, according to a report in DukeToday, authored by Alison Jones.

“Spirituality and meditation have each been linked to health and well-being in previous research,” Van Cappellen said. “We were interested in understanding biological factors that may enhance those spiritual experiences.” He added: “Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs.”

Study participants were all male, and the findings apply only to men, said Van Cappellen, associate director at Interdisciplinary and Behavioural Research Centre at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute. In general, oxytocin operates somewhat differently in men and women, the lead author added. Oxytocin’s effect on women’s spirituality still needs to be investigated.

Oxytocin occurs naturally in our body. Produced by the hypothalamus, it acts as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter, affecting many regions of the brain. It is stimulated during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. Recent research has highlighted oxytocin’s possible role in promoting empathy, trust, social bonding and altruism.

 To test how oxytocin might influence spirituality, researchers administered the hormone to one group and a placebo to another. Those who received oxytocin were more likely to say afterwards that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has meaning and purpose. This was true after taking into account whether the participant reported belonging to an organized religion or not. Participants who received oxytocin were also more inclined to view themselves as interconnected with other people and living things, giving higher ratings to statements such as “All life is interconnected” and “There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people.” It may be noted that spirituality may be understood in very different levels, by different cultures, religions and world-views. Still there are clear commonalities in the way we understand spiritual depth and spiritual way of life.

The experimental study subjects also participated in a guided meditation. Those who received oxytocin reported experiencing more positive emotions during meditation, including awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, love and serenity, writes Jones.

Oxytocin did not affect all participants equally, though. Its effect on spirituality was stronger among people with a particular variant of the CD38 gene, a gene that regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain. This implies that spiritual performance is affected by chemical, biological and genetic alterations.

Van Cappellen cautioned that the findings should not be over-generalized. First of all, there are many definitions of spirituality, she noted. “Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” Van Cappellen said. “However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”

Spirituality, like religion, is a way of relating to the larger world, including God, and may be enhanced by biological and chemical elements. That does not imply that spirituality may be reduced to its biological and chemical components. It does imply that spirituality, our way of making sense of life, is deeply embedded in our physical and chemical composition. Every attempt at enhancing or deepening such spirituality must be appreciated.

(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu