Monday, January 24, 2011

WARNING! Oxytocin the xenophobia drug!

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has published online ahead of full publication a science journal paper with the title

Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism

See the abstract of the paper yourself here:

In case you were not aware, oxytocin has been hyped and researched as a potential "cure" for autism. According to Canadian researcher Michelle Dawson, there is a "growing epidemic of trials" of this "treatment". So, is oxytocin the love drug, or is it the hate drug? I would say that anyone who thinks love and hate are such simple things that one could pop a pill to increase one's quotient of either love or hate is a simple fool! And autism isn't a lack of love! I find it incredible that any respectable university researcher could buy such a primitively simple theory about autism.

Love and hate happen within complex social contexts. In situations of hate and conflict, it is often the social context that is more pathological, not the people involved, although it is true that there are features of neurotypical psychology that make "normal" people especially vulnerable to some irrational and evil ways of thinking. Neurotypical people are more likely to fall victim to the framing effect than autistic people (DeMartino et al 2008). Thus neurotypicals would be more vulnerable to being sucked-in by arguments that use framing to manipulate the target audience. This is exactly the type of argument that is the engine that powers much xenophobic rhetoric. When an Australian politician describes refugees in boats as "illegal immigrants" rather than using the alternative term "asylum seekers", this is the use of the framing effect in xenophobic rhetoric (feel free to argue with me on this point, I enjoy arguing).

Anyone who has a basic understanding of history will be aware of the dangers of xenophobic rhetoric. Messages of ethnic and race hate often find a receptive audience in times of hardship and in particular social-political contexts, and the vast majority of people have minds that are vulnerable to this type of manipulation. This is how wars happen. This is how war crimes happen. This is how genocides happen. The people who herded the Jews into the gas chambers weren't all autistics - we can safely assume that the membership of this group was overwhelmingly those wonderful empathetic neurotypical people, gushing with oxytocin and with fully functioning mirror neurons. Ditto the thousands of people who made Pol Pot's genocidal vision a reality. Ditto the people who set up and ran the rape camps in the Balkans. Do you believe that I and all other autistic people should aspire to have this type of psychology? Really? I'm not arguing that autistics are morally perfect or are saints, I'm just saying that the idea that neurotypical people are by definition naturally empathetic is a sad, sick joke that reflects an incredible ignorance of human history.

The theories that promote oxytocin and mirror neurons as miracle cures for autism are psuedo-science. It is the type of hype-powered research that happens as the result of a feast of funding for anything related to autism, and in time it will be exposed as hype or pure rubbish. Mirror-neuron theories of autism have been the subject of sophisticated criticism from other researchers, and many people have seen the flaws in the hype. If you care to read a fair number of science journal papers in the many areas of research related to autism you will start to notice that often the conclusions don't reflect what the study actually found, and that conclusions that assume that autism is pathological are amost always favoured even if one or more other explanations for the results are possible. It is not hard to find junk science and questionable conclusions related to autism research in science journals.

One rewarding aspect of trawling through research papers about autism is that one can sometimes find unacknowledged evidence of cognitive advantages of autism buried within the results, and often misdescribed as pathology. I believe this is the type of thing that researcher Michelle Dawson often finds, and I recently discovered an example myself of a distortion in visual processing that normal people typically fall victim to but which autistic study subjects appear to be immune to.

Back to the subject of the much-hyped and much-researced oxytocin. Consider this - every time you have a w*** or a f*** your brain apparently becomes naturally awash with the "social" hormone oxytocin. Tell me, do you become a completely different, better person every time you have a w*** or a f***? I don't think this happens with me. For sure there is no long-term "improvement" in my personality. I'm the same old argumentative bitch that I've always been, despite decades of sexual activity, and this is one fact that I don't need to back up with a lengthy argument.


Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. Van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi, and Michel J. J. Handgraaf (2010) Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print January 10, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015316108

Benedetto De Martino, Neil A. Harrison, Steven Knafo, Geoff Bird, and Raymond J. Dolan (2008) Explaining Enhanced Logical Consistency during Decision Making in Autism. Journal of Neuroscience. October 15, 2008, 28(42):10746-10750; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2895-08.2008

Welcome Trust (2008) People with autism make more rational decisions, study shows. October 15 2008.

The Autism Crisis (blog by Michelle Dawson)

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) Framing effect (psychology). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


krex said...

the idea that neurotypical people are by definition naturally empathetic is a sad, sick joke that reflects an incredible ignorance of human history.

I think I would have this engraved on my tombstone....if I was opting for creamation .

As to "Weird Science" thinks the only thing that most scientific theory about autism seems to prove is that humans should spend more time in school learning basic principles of reasoning and less time memorizing names and dates that some ruling class deems as sacred . (unless the whole point of schooling is an attempt to subvert this ability who would gain from doing such a thing as creating obedient, easily manipulated and socially obsessed slaves ?)....Guess they slipped up letting me read Brave New World in English lit .

As to the bonding drug "Oxy".....I must be loaded with it because my bond/love/passion... with my cats, books and obsessions is stronger then a heroin addicts craving for smack .

What keeps me from bonding with humans is simply that they treat me, animals, the earth and each other with cruelty . To have me take a drug that blinds me to this reality is like blind folding a toddler and sending them in to the jungle ....(where the sweet panthers and bears will no doubt sing them lullabies and dance to happy songs > ?

No thanks . It took me years to develop my armor or cynicism and it's all that stands between me and being burned alive as a witch .

Lili Marlene said...

You read Brave New World in your teens too? I was lucky enough to be given a totally wrecked old copy of the book by the high school librarian who would have otherwise thrown it in the bin. What a wonderful gift. I still have it.

krex said...

Inspite of my inability to spell or write a gramatically correct sentence with out typo's....I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid and was lucky enough to have 3 older brothers with hand me down books . I personally think that reading is another form of stimming ...certainly stimulates me .

The down side of reading such books at a young age is that it makes it more difficult to pretend that you respect and trust adults and the insane reality they create . I don't doubt that this cognitive dissidence is what makes some "psych experts" confuse schizophrenic delusions with an aspie trying to create some sense and reason out of the insanity that is humanity in politics and history .

It wasn't so much that I "believed" my delusions but that I refused to believe theirs . (They hate when you wont play along ).

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Geoff Bird's paper in the journal Brain on empathy?

Lili Marlene said...

No, but I could have a look.

Lili Marlene said...

I've found an old paper about mirror-touch synaesthesia:

That the one you refer to?

Lili Marlene said...

Found a more recent study by Bird et al in Brain.

"Empathic brain responses in insula are modulated by levels of alexithymia but not autism"

The old "don't blame autism for problems associated with alexithymia" thing. I've seen this issue come up before in studies and discussions pertaining to empathy and autism. It appears that alexithymia is the real problem, and not all autistic people have it, and people who are not diagnosed as autistic can have alexithymia.

Is there a large organization named "Cure Alexithymia Now" that solicits for donations and funds lots of research into alexithymia? I don't think so. Strange.

Lili Marlene said...

I've found an older study by Bird et al, but it is in the journal Emotion, not Brain. It is about oxytocin and empathy. This is what it found:

"Empathy-relevant brain activation (anterior insula) was neither enhanced by oxytocin nor positively associated with prosocial behavior. However, oxytocin reduced amygdala activation when participants received painful stimulation themselves (in the nonsocial condition). Surprisingly, this effect was driven by "selfish" participants."

So, oxytocin might help to reduce fear, but it seems to have no effect on empathy if this study is a guide.

Lili Marlene said...

Read that study in full here:

Anonymous said...

Well that stuff is relevant but I got confused. I meant the stuff saying mirror neurons are not broken.

Lili Marlene said...

I found this, but it isn't by the Geoff Bird:

Unbroken mirror neurons in autism spectrum disorders.
Yang-Teng Fan, Jean Decety, Chia-Yen Yang, Ji-Lin Liu, and Yawei Cheng