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Dr. Paul Zak’s love affair with oxytocin

The professor talks about how cancer patients can release the feel-good hormone and why there’s a lot to learn from the molecule

by: Ameera Butt
Photography: Ameera Butt
  • Dr. Paul Zak’s love affair with oxytocin
This story relates to Balance, one of the 7 Pillars in our life-changing course.

The Insider is a monthly series that examines the lives of fascinating people who overcome challenges.

When Dr. Paul Zak’s mother was dying of leukemia last year, the professor of economics management and psychology at Claremont Graduate University had the chance to spend a lot of time with her. He got to do all the things she once did for him– listen, talk, give her medicine, and feed her.

“In two months I can’t give back what she did for me,” Zak says. “But I could show her the love she showed me.”

Something inside Zak allowed him to feel empathy for his mother’s situation. That something is called oxytocin, a hormone usually associated with breastfeeding, sex and romantic situations that can be measured in people’s blood or saliva.

“Oxytocin lets us do this noble thing, and even get this pleasure out of it,” Zak says. “I’m profoundly sad my mother passed away but I felt privileged to see that process and be part of that process.”

Studying oxytocin has been most of Zak’s life’s work. Zak has a Ph.D. in economics from University of Pennsylvania, and post-doctoral training in neuroimaging from Harvard. He coined the term “neuroeconomics” in 2001, which combines economics with psychology, biology and neurology. As director of Claremont University’s Neuroeconomic Studies he is considered a founder in the field.

He first began researching oxytocin more than a decade ago. At the time, oxytocin was thought to be released only between mothers and their babies during breastfeeding. A colleague told Zak that he thought researching this “female hormone” would end his career. Zak proved him wrong. In 2012 Zak published the book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity (Dutton), which focuses on economics and trust in relation to oxytocin, and further details the complexity of the hormone. And after more than ten years in the field, Zak has seen oxytocin recognized as a trigger for trust, empathy, generosity, and feeling good for both men and women.

Zak oversees 25 lab members at Claremont University’s Center of Neuroeconomic Studies where they conduct a range of experients. A recent experiment examined if a rise in oxytocin also means a rise in donating to a cause from a distance. Participants watched a short video featuring a boy with terminal brain cancer, then were asked if they want to donate to a charity related to the boy’s disease. A majority of the experiment’s participants donated. In another experiment, Zak examined the levels of the oxytocin at a wedding by taking blood samples from all the attendees (the bride registered the highest levels of the feel-good hormone, followed by her family).

Zak says one way that he gets a rush of oxytocin is by hugging his kids. The 52-year-old lives in Loma Linda, California with his wife and two daughters. “Kids are the world's best oxytocin stimulators," Zak says. “They cause their parents brains to make oxytocin.”

For people who don’t have kids there are other ways to release the feel-good hormone. “Tell people you love them,” Zak recommends. This allows people to connect and has been proven to release oxytocin. Zak also suggests to get a massage, exercise in a group, or hug someone. Those techniques can work for caregivers or for people battling cancer.

The one exception is when patients are really stressed and in survival mode, when oxytocin release can be inhibited. But there are ways to overcome that stress. “It’s certainly very important for patients to have a sense of social support and connection, and if that’s facilitated, there’s evidence they will get better faster,” Zak says. For example, if you’re a cancer patient, he says that a doctor should make appropriate eye contact and touch when delivering a diagnosis or giving medical advice.

In his research Zak has discovered that things like touch, giving someone your full attention, and actively listening are some ways to reduce stress. With Zak’s mother, for example, they both sang French songs she loved. It helped relax her and put them both at ease when she was ill.

Although Zak recommends being generous with hugs and not being shy about saying “I love you,” he considers himself an introvert at heart. He prefers to spend hours in the lab. But he has conditioned himself to refuse shaking hands with strangers – and instead gives them hugs to better connect to others.

This affection is also what helps keep him healthy. According to Zak, nature has given human beings amazing adaptive systems. Being able to love is a deep part of human nature that can even aid with healing. “If there’s any opportunity to connect, our brains love it,” says Zak. “And it’s good for us too.”

Ameera Butt is reimagine’s Assistant Editor. Follow her on Twitter @meerabee.


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