In a lecture that touched on brainwashing and false confessions, on the government-led administration of hallucinogens to soldiers and lie detection, what most stood out was nature’s favorite love serum. It turns out that oxytocin — the same hormone secreted after sex and during nursing — might have a role in military intelligence.
As part of Jonathan Moreno’s Monday night neuroethics class for bioethics Masters students at Penn, CNS director Martha Farah spoke on the overlap between brain research and national security, a topic Moreno has written on extensively. Biological warfare is fascinating as a whole, but Farah’s punch line on the potential use of oxytocin in interrogation was especially interesting because it gives a new twist on our picture of the famous “love hormone.”
Oxytocin’s got a warm and fuzzy reputation, hence the warm and fuzzy nickname. It can act as a neurotransmitter and has diffuse effects on the body and brain, though its best-known effects involve bonding. It helps facilitate breastfeeding and uterine contraction during labor, and as a neuromodulator it has been linked to maternal behaviors, monogamy among prairie voles, romantic attachment in humans and social trust. As Farah explained, it’s that last point that caught the attention of security-minded folks and provoked the question: Could oxytocin play a role in interrogation? If you administer the love hormone, will it induce a state of trust and fondness that makes someone in the hot seat spill?
Farah reviewed research from the past decade pointing to this possibility. In one experiment, observers blinded to the study’s focus rated fathers who had been administered oxytocin as more attentive and communicative in playing with their children than fathers in the control group. Another study found that oxytocin made participants more generous and forgiving in economic games involving trade-offs in gains, while a third suggested that oxytocin encourages information-sharing. As of now, the most effective way to administer oxytocin is intransally, meaning you can’t quite give it to people without their noticing. Regardless, some view oxytocin as a promising pathway to gentler interrogation, replacing physical or psychological pressure with the equivalent of a mental love tap.
Of course, this idea comes with cautionary footnotes. Farah explained that oxytocin may have a “dark side,” in that if individuals are dealing with someone they classify as outside their social group, increased oxytocin levels may actually make them more hostile. Aside from raising questions about oxytocin’s broader evolutionary role, this effect could spell trouble in security contexts. Greater hostility between parties is never desirable, but more specifically, individuals being interrogated often passionately separate themselves from the groups doing the questioning. The very fact of being interrogated might drive that individual to feeling like a group outsider. In such cases, oxytocin’s dark side would fan already considerable flames.
And a number of ethical objections can be proposed, including the possible abuse of these methods and “slippery slope” consequences of using more brain state manipulation. There’s also the what-does-this-all-say-about-humanity concern that it’s wrong to play on the virtue of kindness to benefit the dirty work of interrogation. Any suggestion of “mind control” can be unsettling, even (or perhaps especially) when it involves something as innocent-sounding as the love hormone.
If the potential hijacking of love by war is a bit too much for you, check out some recent research into the role of oxytocin in sports. As for ways in which this hormone’s versatility may point to connections between sports, sex and war, that’s a topic for another day. Or maybe even another whole month.