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. Phsysorg.com October 15 2008.
The Autism Crisis (blog by Michelle Dawson)
Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) Framing effect (psychology). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.