How are Babies Like Big Government?

by Courtroom Mama on April 27, 2010

According to this NPR segment on the biology of trust (mp3 here), both of them require oxytocin to happen.

As a women’s health advocate, I know a little thing or two about oxytocin and its role in labor. I know about oxytocin release in orgasms and milk letdown (which nobody tells you about for that first postpartum sex ¡SURPRISE!). I know that oxytocin contributes significantly to bonding, hence much ado about keeping the mother/baby dyad together in the minutes after birth. I know that adrenaline is antagonistic to oxytocin, which is why all of the above are nigh impossible when a person is frightened or stressed.

What I didn’t know was that oxytocin is the magic responsible for trust as well. The segment describes the role of oxytocin in trust formation through the story of a little girl with Williams Disease, a congenital neurological problem that impairs the body’s regulation of oxytocin. It just keeps churning it out, and consequently she is, well, pathologically guileless. She trusts absolutely everyone like they were her best friend. Poetic, but evolutionarily disadvantageous.

This isn’t how things are supposed to be. The article points out that “oxytocin is generated only after some concrete event or action”; once a person does something to show that they are not a threat, the body creates oxytocin. From a ground-level perspective, this makes sense: someone is nice to you, you form a little bond. I think that this has an interesting implication for birth: if the birth attendant does something to make a woman feel that she or he is not a threat (e.g. treating a woman with respect, listening to her, comforting her…), she will create more oxytocin as a result, which will in turn help labor along.

As for big government? Professor Paul Zak, a neuroscientist and economist (how do you like those credentials!), discovered that administering oxytocin to people makes them more generous and trusting of others, thereby making them more trusting of the government as well. This micro-to-macro model of social cohesion is outlined in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (which, for those of you who were following along as I tweeted the 2010 CIMS Forum, went on my #booklist hashtag when it was referenced by Raymond Devries by way of explaining our American Exceptionalism in birth): people connect with those around them on the community scale–church groups, bowling leagues–and are show greater solidarity on a societal level. Which is to say, if we have more tea parties (or good birthing experiences?!), we’ll have fewer Tea Partiers. However, the economic crisis has caused massive amounts of stress, which in turn has hampered trust-cum-oxytocin, and voila! widespread distrust of government.

Apart from being totally fascinating in a really geeky way, this is the ultimate justification for progressives to participate in the Birthquake proposed by Jill at The Unnecesarean; after all, oxytocin production is at its apogee just after birth. Although I guess if you think about it, Boobquake will do, as long as there is lactation or orgasms involved…