Last week I picked my daughter up from the Agriscience High School she attends and was greeted with a sure sign of spring. There are dozens of new baby lambs who have all just been born. They are very cute but they also look exactly the same to me. My daughter tells me that they look alike because although there are many ewes there is only one ram, so all the babies have the same dad. Even though the babies look alike and to me they smell alike, each one is unique and special to its mother.
Sheep live in herds and unlike some other mammals they do not care for each other’s babies. A mother sheep must bond to and learn to identify her baby among the vast herd of lambs who are born at the same time. When you consider that sheep are not very smart, this feat is truly one of nature’s miracles.
But why am I discussing sheep on this blog? The reason is FAQ #1. “Why is this so hard for us mentally?” Men and women who have been involved with sociopaths want to know why recovery is so difficult. Sheep, believe it or not, teach us a lot about that.
Farmers have known for centuries that mother sheep are selective and will reject strange lambs but lovingly care for their own. A ewe can be fooled into accepting a strange lamb if she receives stimulation to her cervix and vagina. (Please don’t ask me how the farmers accomplish that one.) Stimulation of the cervix and vagina, as happens during birth are part of what produces the love bond a ewe feels toward her baby.
Vaginal and cervical stimulation induces bonding in the mother. Blocking the sensory impulses from the pelvic region with spinal anesthesia blocks the bonding mechanism. The failure to bond after spinal anesthesia can be reversed by oxytocin injection. In fact, oxytocin injection alone can induce acceptance of an unfamiliar lamb even in a non-pregnant ewe. Acceptance/bonding is also disrupted by oxytocin blocking drugs. There is therefore strong evidence that oxytocin mediates bonding in sheep.
It appears that in mammals, the hormone oxytocin not only helps in labor by inducing uterine contractions and facilitates nursing by causing milk ejection, it is also a bonding hormone. Those women who have experienced motherhood and birth can attest to the fact that for many falling in love with a newborn is similar to falling in love with one’s mate. Men are not off the hook when it comes to bonding. They too have oxytocin, and it is important in normal male sexual function.
Scientists are in the process of unraveling the mystery of how oxytocin induces a love bond between a ewe and her lamb. What has been discovered so far has pretty scary implications for humans. Oxytocin induces plasticity in the sheep smell cortex. That means that the cells that respond to smell become very sensitive such that those which are stimulated by the odor of the newborn develop strong connections. By this mechanism, the smell of the baby is imprinted on the mother’s brain.
Another group of researchers studying rodents have actually pinpointed the molecular mechanism responsible for oxytocin’s action in another area of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus. Oxytocin binding to its receptor induces production of another protein pCREB. This protein acts to enhance plasticity and long term memory. The long and the short of it is that oxytocin produces a rewiring of the brain! When you love someone, your love changes the wiring in your brain. Since undoing the wiring takes time, recovery takes time.
In our book, Women Who Love Psychopaths (available April 24) Sandra Brown, M.A. makes the observation that many of the women recovering from relationships with psychopaths seem to be exceptionally trusting of others. I have to admit that that description probably fits me. Well, blame that one on oxytocin too.
Paul J. Zak, PhD, is founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont. Has done a series of experiments in which he has shown that oxytocin is also responsible for trust in humans. Oxytocin and oxytocin receptors are found in both men and women.
What about sociopaths? They are not particularly trusting and we know they do not bond. Could the problem be oxytocin? In preliminary studies Dr. Zak and colleagues found that sociopaths may have abnormally high levels of oxytocin. This could happen if there is something wrong with their oxytocin receptors such that they are “immune” to oxytocin. Here is a great talk on oxytocin by Dr. Zak. Just fast forward to 3 minutes and 30 seconds to get past the longwinded introduction.
The oxytocin news isn’t all bad for us humans. Remember that a ewe has more than one lamb over the course of her life, so oxytocin is able to rewire the brain more than once in a lifetime. Many people instinctively know that getting into another relationship will help to erase the memory of a bad relationship. Be careful though, if you are recovering from a relationship with a sociopath, you are especially vulnerable to being victimized again by another sociopath.
The other lesson to be learned is that to heal you must get away from the sociopath. Every time you have any intimacy with a sociopath, oxytocin is released and the bond is strengthened. Any intimacy, including talking and hugging, will stimulate oxytocin release. If oxytocin is released in the presence of the sociopath you will trust and feel bonded to him/her.