Mammals Suck, and That Makes Oxytocin!

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Remember that picture at the end of my post last week? The happily satisfied lions resting, affectionately spent after their adventures in courtship? Now look at the picture of this cute little baby monkey with his mom. And the momma hippo (below) cavorting in the water with her baby.

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This is where that starts. This mamma-baby connection is where oxytocin—the trust hormone—flows at peak levels, creating in both animals (the mom and the baby) the feeling of intense warm attachment. It is the way that the desire for warm attachment becomes part of an individual, staying with her for life and creating the desire and willingness that trust between animals might work. It feels really good to be connected in trust, and that's nature's way of making sure it happens. Yes, this is yet another way in which all mammals, ourselves included, are alike.

Unless we're very, very unlucky, we get lots of oxytocin from day one onward. When a helpless and vulnerable little one is held by his mother or another loving and caring adult, it sets levels of oxytocin in his brain that will help him regulate emotions of fear and grief throughout his life. He learns how to ask for help, and how to trust that someone will help him, and he learns to be a helper in his turn who creates an atmosphere of trust for others (did that female lion resting under the male's giant paw look like she didn't trust him?!).

Early trust experiences, early doses of oxytocin, teach us to feel safe in relationship. This fundamental fact of seeking out relationship with others in order to feel safe is something that all mammals share. It's the foundation for family life, but also for friendship, and even political alliances. It's nature's way of keeping us connected, because nature values our being connected.

It isn't always easy; it's not just warm and cozy. If you're a baby Pacific gray whale, and you're on your way north on your first migration with your mom from the warm Baja lagoons in Mexico, where you were born, to the cold Chukchi Sea in the Arctic where you will eat your first grown-up food, you'll be very grateful that you can trust your mom when you get to somewhere around Monterey, California. In that region, there are orcas who prey on baby whales. And if she sees them coming, your mom is going to flip over on her back while positioning you on her abdomen to protect you from harm. What you might not realize right then is that she is risking her own life when she does this. It's not that the orcas will hurt her: she's huge compared to them. But she might drown if this goes on for too long. A whale is a mammal who must breathe, and mother whales risk drowning in order to protect their infants. That level of devotion is impressive, and it is also very, very common between mothers and their children—across species.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp refers to this affective system in the bodies and brains of all mammals, facilitated by oxytocin, as the care system (this is another of the seven systems that he identified in his pioneering research, which I'm revisiting in this series of posts). It starts in infancy as a bond between mothers and babies but it goes on to become many kinds of caring bonds in the life of a mammal, from lovers, to parents, to friends.

When I was at San Ignacio lagoon this past March, visiting whale friends, I had a conversation with some human friends about the incredible experience of friendliness and trust that is so common between humans and whales in those Baja lagoons. In these birthing lagoons, mother whales bring their babies up to the boats for humans to see, and even to pet. This cross-species friendliness and trust is all the more extraordinary because the whales were hunted almost to extinction in those very lagoons in the first half of the twentieth century. In order to hunt, humans would use the horrible technique of harpooning infants in order to draw their mothers in, and then killing the mothers while leaving the injured infants to die alone. Some of the whales alive now were alive in those days. So you wouldn't expect them to cozy up to humans. But they do.

Some of the local people say that the whales come to teach us forgiveness. And indeed the closeness of humans and whales today in those same places is a compelling mystery. But in conversation with my human friends that day, I suddenly understood that oxytocin plays a role. The lagoons are full of mother and baby pairs, and so they are veritable baths of oxytocin, the trust hormone that bonds mother and baby. And this bond itself keeps the oxytocin flowing, in a kind of circular feel-good event. It's that triumph of warmth and trust and connection over violence and destruction: the story line we always hope for. And it's the same chemical that bonds sexual partners, lovers. . . yes, including those two lions. And yes, you may have heard, it can also keep you hooked on a bad date (but there are other fundamental emotions, fear and anger, that can help you unhook).

So, I ask my driving question again: can we really understand each other across species boundaries? Well, yeah, every time you call your mom, or have coffee with a close friend, or cuddle with your lover, you're doing something that all mammals do (minus the coffee). You're making that oxytocin bond that you first experienced as a baby.

Look at these "daggaboys," old male buffalo (below) who are past their breeding years but who hang out together as a way of life, recreating the experience of bonding, trust, and care.

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And look at these two rhinos, BFFs, who spend entire days grazing together like this. Yes, they trust each other. If she says, "Got your back," well. . . .

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