Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke University, took a look at what happens when you give men oxytocin, a hormone associated with social engagement (sometimes mis-labeled the “moral hormone” because it can promote trust, altruism, generosity and intimacy). Men were studied because oxytocin is known to have different effects in men and women.
Two previous studies had suggested that oxytocin – which is released when we connect with others – is connected with spirituality. Oxytocin levels in HIV patients correlated to how spiritual they considered themselves to be. The same correlation was found in a study of devout American Christians.
In Van Cappellen’s study, some men were given oxytocin, others received a placebo. Then they were taught to meditate, a spiritual practice that the researchers believed would help reveal any effect the oxytocin produced.
The men who were given oxytocin were more likely to say afterwards that spirituality was important and that life has meaning and purpose – whether they reported belonging to an organized religion or not. The effects were still present a week later when the men were re-tested.
Oxytocin is just one of several hormones that have been connected to spirituality, but it has many pro-social and other effects that help balance stress. More than any of the others, it has been found to have many psychological effects that are similar to spiritual beliefs and practices – that’s why some were tempted to label it the “moral” hormone.
See the full study here.
So it’s not religion that’s the opiate of the people, it’s oxytocin.
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