When not teaching neuro-economics at Claremont Graduate University, Professor Zak has dedicated himself to exploring the science behind human affection. I recently had the chance to sit down with him.
It started with a hug.
I imagine anyone that had stumbled in to discover two 6’5”, undyingly masculine strangers locked in an intimate embrace might have been somewhat confused. But Paul (we moved to a first name basis immediately following our brief, standing cuddle session) has found hugs to be a simple yet powerful trigger of oxytocin, a chemical that he has discovered to serve as the foundation for trust, which in turn provides the crucial foundation for love.
“I sort of came into the study of love through the back door,” says a tank-top and baseball hat-clad Dr. Love. “First and foremost I am an economics man, and I became interested in the human aspect of business and more specifically what causes the level of trust and confidence in others necessary for these interactions to happen successfully. From there I was led to oxytocin, which I ultimately discovered to be a key factor in not only business, but in love.”
According to Paul, this “magic” chemical is all around us. As inherently social beings, we crave it. It boosts our mood, reduces stress, and most notably heightens feelings of connection with others, whether those feelings are sexual or platonic. It can be found in hugs, in eye contact, in displays of affection, and even in emotion-triggering movies and social networking. He notes, “As humans, our brains have seemingly not fully evolved to allow us to distinguish between the feelings caused by seeing a sad film or looking at an acquaintance’s Facebook activity, and those caused by real life human-interaction.”
It couldn’t have been more appropriate at this juncture in our interview for one of Paul’s co-workers to bring in his new-born son. Aside from being utterly adorable, the baby served as a perfect example of our most basic human desires. When the infant started to cry in Paul’s arms, I, now being a second-hand expert on matters of emotion, asked if something as simple as a baby’s tears could be a product of the very same oxytocin that affects adults.
“Even in infants we can see this natural, primitive desire for social fulfillment. Cries for attention can reflect the basic crave for oxytocin that comes through interaction with others, and crying when he’s removed from his father’s arms and placed into mine may be a product of feelings of departure from a comfortable, safe environment.”
Ultimately, one of the largest components of love is this same level of trust and comfort, both of which are products of oxytocin. Naturally, as a hormonal 19-year old guy with somewhat of a desire to make women fall at my size 15 feet, I asked Paul what one can do to increase the chances of making the one you’re interested in be interested in you right back.
According to Dr. Love himself, there are several, simple ways you can induce an oxytocin release in others. Food is a huge trigger (Take a date out to eat). Gifts and displays of generosity are triggers as well (Get them some flowers). Cutting distractions is always a plus (For the love of God, turn off your iPhone). Make eye contact and listen (It’s easier than you think). Appropriate touch can be effective (Hit ‘em with a hug). And finally, if you’re capable enough to pull it off in a charming and consensual manner, have some sex (And make it passionate).
Paul has also found there to be a correlation between oxytocin release and varying levels of stress. High stress inhibits it, yet interestingly enough moderate stress does the opposite and in fact induces it. Need a killer idea for a first date? Go to Disney Land. Take your date on a roller coaster. Be a little spontaneous. Maybe save sky diving for date #2 to spare your partner from thinking you’re just a total nutjob, but even that can have impressive results: “I went sky diving with an instructor strapped to my back,” says Paul, “and the first thing I did when we hit the ground was yell ‘I LOVE YOU MAN!’ It’s the same reason that we see people fall in love with those they have been in stressful situations with. Look no further than Christie Brinkley marrying the guy she was in a helicopter crash with. Obviously, I didn’t actually fall in love with the guy I jumped out of a plane with, but it’s the same mechanism. It all revolves around oxytocin.”
Finally, as one of many college students that has dabbled (ultimately unsuccessfully, I might add) in long distance relationships, I was curious as to whether he had any thoughts on them.
“They’re always going to be difficult,” he responded. “Phone calls and video chats can only do so much to make up for the loss of that oxytocin release that accompanies physically being around the person you love. Women especially need that constant feeling of trust and comfort, and this can be easily lost through separation. Throw some unsatisfied testosterone in the mix, which women of course have but we as men have about ten times as much of, and you can be in for a rough time.”
So, to those of you trying to go the distance, be patient with your partner and try to hang in there. And if ultimately it doesn’t end up working out, realize that the scientific odds were stacked against you (Shoutout ex-girlfriends everywhere).
Paul and I ended our interview as we started; with a hug.
Oxytocin (and intense feelings of affection) ensued.