September 21, 2010
Oxytocin Helps Only Socially Less Proficient

If you are already socially competent oxytocin isn't going to raise the level of your game.

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have found that the naturally-occurring hormone oxytocin selectively improves social cognitive abilities for less socially proficient individuals, but has little effect on those who are more socially proficient. The study was published today in Psychological Science.

Researchers at the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Columbia University wanted to determine if oxytocin, popularly dubbed the "hormone of love," could have widespread benefit in making us more understanding of others. They conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over challenge, giving 27 healthy adult men oxytocin or a placebo delivered nasally. Participants then performed an empathic accuracy task in which they watched videos of people discussing emotional events from their life and rated how they thought the people in the videos were feeling.

That oxytocin can even improve the social skills of those with some degree of autism (and there's a spectrum of autism from quite mild to quite severe) is itself a curious result. If autism was caused only by a lack of some capability (e.g. missing or smaller neural networks for making sense of emotions of others) then one might expect a hormone couldn't help with that. Does oxytocin work by boosting the activity of of existing neural networks? Or by suppressing neural networks that themselves suppress yet other parts of the brain that do social calculating? In other words, does oxytocin free up some latent capabilities to enable to come online?

Improved empathic accuracy.

Although all participants were healthy adults who did not have autism, the researchers looked at whether differences in social cognitive expertise affected response to oxytocin. Social competency was measured using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a common self-report instrument that predicts social cognitive performance. Researchers hypothesized that oxytocin and AQ would interact to predict social cognitive performance. Results showed that oxytocin improved empathic accuracy, but only in those individuals who were less socially proficient.

"Oxytocin is widely believed to make all people more empathic and understanding of others," said Jennifer Bartz, PhD, Assistant Professor, Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and lead author of the study. "Our study contradicts that. Instead, oxytocin appears to be helpful only for those who are less socially proficient."

Kids should probably be given AQ tests along with IQ tests so that their nature is less mysterious to them. Let them know where they stand and what their weaknesses are. That'll put them in a better position to make career choices and work on methods to compensate for their weaknesses while figuring out how to better leverage their strengths.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 September 21 10:22 PM  Brain Performance


Comments
PacRim Jim said at September 22, 2010 1:31 AM:

It's important that everyone be exactly the same. Soon, we'll be able to modify genes so that everyone has the same genome and epigenome, under penalty of law.

AC1 said at September 22, 2010 11:13 AM:

Like a high IQ is a mixed blessing could a low EQ/AQ be regarded as not so much of a curse.

Many people who get themselves into emotional situations frankly deserve it. Empathising with their predicament might over-rule the ability to waste resources helping them (and thus rewarding and encouraging fecklessness).

jaytee said at September 22, 2010 1:27 PM:

Is it really any surprise that a drug can be used to open up latent parts of the brain? Anyone who's ever taken psychedelics knew this already.

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