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Unstrange Phenomena

29 April 2010

Neuroscience: Want Your Man to Better Understand You? Try Empathy Nasal Spray

Photo by Victor Bezrukov @ flickr

From Denny: Sometimes, scientists study the craziest things. This time it must have been a female scientist tired of being in relationships with insensitive men. Or maybe it was those same insensitive men wondering how they could bridge the gender gap and actually feel what the women in their lives were feeling. Any way you look at look at it, these guys got creative in their approach. What faster way to impact a change on the brain than through a nasal spray delivery system?

We all know from experience that women tend to be far superior readers of emotions in others than men. Women are even better at predicting emotions than men. Women want and downright expect their men to be able to read emotions as easily. Sorry, ladies, unless trained in reading body language and the like, most men remain clueless in this department. Scientists agree that men are clueless and that women should not hold their breath waiting for the impossible.

So, scientists being scientists they have come up with a way for a man to fake his empathy at least for a while before the nasal spray of oxytocin wears off. Just think of all the bickering fights couples could avoid if only men kept a bottle of oxytocin like they do condoms at the ready.

So, how does this new nasal spray work? Think of it as a performance enhancer for those brain circuits that handle the empathy network. Oxytocin is one of those hormones that scientists know helps to promote social bonding. It's naturally created in the body and helps us fall in love, promote those parenting instincts and best of all, makes us orgasmic for great sex. That's probably enough for most men to run out of the house right now and create a city wide stampede to the nearest pharmacy to purchase the nasal spray by the truck load.

How do women tend to interact with this hormone? Oxytocin levels spike high during pregnancy and breast-feeding which helps to create that special intimiate mother and child bond. Scientists speculate that this hormone may also be why women are so adept at reading social cues so quickly.

The study done involved 48 men and 26 women taking two empathy tests. To figure out the correct answers in a game, one test required using the social cues of happy, angry or neutral facial expression. The second test involved rating their own emotional reactions when shown photos of various scenarios, testing for emotional empathy. To rate cognitive empathy the men and women were asked to name the primary emotion of the main character in the scene of the test.

You guessed it, women excelled above the men in both tests. Men did fine when identifying the emotions of others. Where they struggled was in the area of responding to - or learning from - emotional displays.

What changed all that is when they were sprayed with the hormone oxytocin in a nasal mist. That's when things got interesting, according to the study in the Journal of Neuroscience: "emotional empathy responses in men were raised to levels similar to those found in untreated women." After a dose of this hormone men were now more affected by emotional scenes than previously and they tested better at learning tasks that required social cues.

The funny part is that the dosage didn't last long and so the men required another dose two hours later to perform as well again.

For now, the nasal spray empathy hormone is only available in a lab setting. Too bad women can't use it like mace for would-be attackers. Wouldn't that prove interesting? Or you get in a fight with your boyfriend or husband and spray him, saying, "Feel my pain, mister!"

Scientists hope that in the future this study can enhance socially-motivated learning and emotional empathy in men. Until then, it's business as usual, ladies.

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