Oxytocin (not to be confused with Oxycontin) is often referred to as “the cuddle chemical” or “the hug hormone.” It has special functions in the female body, such as stimulating the bond between a mother and her child, and recent studies have shown that it plays a role in human behaviors such as social recognition, healthy relationships, and even orgasms. When released in our brain, it heightens feelings of trust, generosity and empathy, a chemical reaction similar to falling in love.
Imagine a groom on his wedding day and the positive feelings he must be experiencing. Would you believe me if I told you that the oxytocin level in that groom’s brain is the same as someone actively using Twitter?
For a recent Fast Company article, NYU journalism professor and writer Adam Penenberg partnered up with neuroeconomist Paul Zak to explore this very issue. Penenberg met Zak at his lab where a nurse took his blood before he embarked on his experiment. He then sat down at a computer, signed into TweetDeck, and started tweeting. Over a period of 10 minutes, he interacted with people he knew and people he didn’t know on Twitter, and ended the experiment by getting his blood drawn once again, doubting the value of the short, simple, and seemingly meaningless experiment.
But when he received the results six weeks later, Penenberg learned that his oxytocin levels spiked 13.2%, eerily similar to the groom whose oxytocin levels Zak had tested in a previous experiment. Not only did his oxytocin levels increase, but his levels of stress hormones cortisol and ACTH decreased 10.8% and 14.9%, respectively.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the experiment was Zak’s conclusion: “Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for. E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.“
In 2005, Australian scientists discovered that people with friends are healthier and live longer. The particularly compelling part of this generally well-known theory is that those friends don’t need to be physically present. It doesn’t matter where they are. Just by having friends to interact with over the telephone, e-mail, and yes, even social networks, gives us the benefits of better health and a longer life.
Ten years ago, if you were constantly on the computer, you would probably be called a loner or a geek. People would wonder why you chose to isolate yourself and sit in front of an inanimate box instead of going out with friends. Although this stigma has diminished over the past few years and is no longer commonly applied to Millennials, a recent study from the Pew Research Center laid to rest any lingering doubts, showing that social networking leads to larger and more diverse social networks and is actually associated with engagement in public places, as opposed to keeping people indoors.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of Maryland that asked students to give up social media for a day showed that the college students actually felt isolated without social media. A similar TNGG experiment showed similar results.
The truth is, excessive Internet use doesn’t have the same implications that it used to, and the 72% of young adults who use social networking sites aren’t forcing themselves into isolation, but are instead staying connected to their peers in ways that just weren’t possible for the generations that preceded us.
Ultimately, social network use and in-person interactions aren’t mutually exclusive for Millennials. The point isn’t that the Internet and smartphones replace our face-to-face relationships; on the contrary, they aid and facilitate them. It may seem like we’re always online, but so are our friends, and we utilize the technology that we have to enhance our connections with each other.
So next time you see us with our heads down, typing away on our smartphones, or planted in front of our laptops for extensive periods of time, keep in mind that we’re doing more than simply wasting time on the latest gadget.
We’re talking to our friends. We’re keeping up with the latest news in politics or pop culture. We’re sharing photos with our parents with a few easy clicks of a button. We’re making plans for the weekend. We’re even subconsciously increasing our oxytocin levels, elevating part of our brains to a level equivalent to a man on his wedding day.
As solitary and disconnected as we may appear, we are in fact quite the opposite.
Photo by SarahFranco