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What wolves, prairie voles, and humans have in common: The front that unites us all

By Holly Fermon

Love, the ever-present subject of media, the focus of countless minds, and the source of many questions has become an investigative subject for scientists. Love is an important aspect of social interaction, acceptance, and well-being. A person cannot flourish, even if basic survival needs (i.e. shelter, food, water) are met, without love. Let's take a step back from this human-focused lens and zoom out to an evolutionary perspective. 

Life on Earth is fundamentally social. Interacting with other living organisms supports mutual growth, reproduction, and homeostasis. Bacteria reproduce more successfully with the ability to form communities, whose physical and chemical characteristics extend far beyond that of an individual cell. Species that favor social interaction are favored by evolution. 

Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, increases sociability. During birth, oxytocin is released as a ‘bonding hormone’, pain reliever, and stress reducer. Oxytocin promotes a sense of safety, and parental investment in offspring, which helps form lasting bonds. In prairie voles and wolves long-lasting, reciprocal relationships are formed between adults, similar to features of the human experience of romantic, platonic, and parental love. Oxytocin can be released during acute stress events as a coping mechanism, and in turn, social engagement reduces the impact of stress. 

Just as other animals are more likely to survive the odds if they are interconnected, humans are no different. Individuals with strong social networks, and those who feel loved and supported, are more resilient in the face of stressors. Love is written into our genetic and evolutionary code. We are built to connect, love, and be loved, so love a little more each day. 


Fun heart fact: Oxytocin has restorative effects that aid tissue repair, converting undifferentiated stem cells into heart cells, which is crucial in developing the fetal heart. 


References


Carter, C. S., & Porges, S. W. (2013). The biochemistry of love: an oxytocin hypothesis. EMBO reports, 14(1), 12–16. https://doi.org/10.1038/embor.2012.191


Carter C. S. (2021). Oxytocin and love: Myths, metaphors and mysteries. Comprehensive psychoneuroendocrinology, 9, 100107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpnec.2021.100107

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