Oxytocin has long been known to influence what we believe and how we perceive the world. And while spirituality is complex and influenced by many factors, one recent study suggests that oxytocin may actually be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs (Van Cappellen et al., 2016). That is, oxytocin may be one biological factor that can actually enhance our spiritual experiences, which some researchers refer to as “the biology of awe.”
Meditation, in turn, has been found to increase the frequency of oxytocin release by increasing the neurotransmitter arginine vassopressin, which mediates the secretion of oxytocin (Ebstein et al, 2009). Thus, high-quality meditation, in itself, may enhance the effects of oxytocin, creating a bi-directional, mutually reinforcing effect that enhances spiritual experiences.
Oxytocin which occurs naturally in the body, acts as both a neurohormone and a neurotransmitter, influencing several key aspects of human psychology. Many previous studies have established that oxytocin plays a key role in promoting empathy, trust, altruism, social bonding and socialization skills.
In this study of male participants, those who took oxytocin (versus a placebo) reported a greater sense of spirituality shortly after taking oxytocin, which persisted for up to a week. Those who received oxytocin were more likely to report afterwards:
- that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has meaning and purpose.
- that they viewed themselves as interconnected with other people and living things, giving higher ratings to statements such as: “All life is interconnected” and “There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people.”
Study subjects also participated in a guided meditation. Those who received oxytocin reported experiencing more positive emotions during meditation, including awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, love and serenity.
There may be one other biological factor at play in these effects. Oxytocin did not affect all participants equally. Its effect on spirituality was strongest among people with a particular variant of the CD38 gene, a gene that regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain.
For an in-depth look at how meditation influences neurochemicals, see Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters and Neurohormones).
Patty Van Cappellen, Baldwin M. Way, Suzannah F. Isgett, Barbara L. Fredrickson. Effects of oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2016; nsw078.
Ebstein RP, Israel S, Lerer E, Uzefovsky F, Shalev I, Gritsenko I, Riebold M, Salomon S, Yirmiya N.. Arginine vasopressin and oxytocin modulate human social behavior. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Jun;1167:87-102.