How reading rewires your brain for greater intelligence and empathy

Get lost in a good book. Time and again, reading has been shown to make us healthier, smarter, and more empathic.

Fitness headlines promise staggering physical results: a firmer butt, ripped abs, bulging biceps. Nutritional breakthroughs are similar clickbait, with attention-grabbing, if often inauthentic—what, really, is a “superfood?”—means of achieving better health. Strangely, one topic usually escaping discussion has been shown, time and again, to make us healthier, smarter, and more empathic animals: reading.

Reading, of course, requires patience, diligence, and determination. Scanning headlines and retweeting quips is not going to make much cognitive difference. If anything, such sweet nothings are dangerous, the literary equivalent of sugar addiction. Information gathering in under 140 characters is lazy. The benefits of contemplation through narrative offer another story.

The benefits are plenty, which is especially important in a distracted, smartphone age in which one-quarter of American children don’t learn to read. This not only endangers them socially and intellectually, but cognitively handicaps them for life. One 2009 study of 72 children ages eight to ten discovered that reading creates new white matter in the brain, which improves system-wide communication.

White matter carries information between regions of grey matter, where any information is processed. Not only does reading increase white matter, it helps information be processed more efficiently.

Reading in one language has enormous benefits. Add a foreign language and not only do communication skills improve—you can talk to more people in wider circles—but the regions of your brain involved in spatial navigation and learning new information increase in size. Learning a new language also improves your overall memory.

In one of the most fascinating aspects of neuroscience, language affects regions of your brain involving actions you’re reading about. For example, when you read “soap” and “lavender,” the parts of your brain implicated in scent are activated. Those regions remain silent when you read “chair.” What if I wrote “leather chair?” Your sensory cortex just fired.

Continuing from the opening paragraph, let’s discuss squats in your quest for a firmer butt. Picture the biomechanics required for a squat. Your motor cortex has been activated. Athletes have long envisioned their movements—Serena Williams’s serve; Conor McGregor’s kicks; Usain Bolt’s bursts of speed—to achieve better proficiency while actually moving. That’s because their brains are practicing. That is, they’re practicing through visualization techniques.

Hard glutes are one thing. Novel reading is a great way to practice being human. Rather than sprints and punches, how about something more primitive and necessary in a society, like empathy? As you dive deeper into Rabbit Angstrom’s follies or Jason Taylor coming of age, you not only feel their pain and joy. You actually experience it.

In one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

This has profound implications for how we interact with others. When encountering a 13-year-old boy misbehaving, you most likely won’t think, “Well, David Mitchell wrote about such a situation, and so I should behave like this,” but you might have integrated some of the lessons about young boys figuring life out and display a more nuanced understanding in how you react.

Perhaps you’ll even reconsider trolling someone online regarding their political opinion, remembering that no matter how crass and inhumane a sentiment appears on screen, an actual human is sitting behind the keyboard pecking out their thoughts. I’m not arguing against engaging, but for the love of anything closely resembling humanity, argue intelligently.

Because reading does in fact make us more intelligent. Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.

All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.

Novels consume time and attention. While the benefits are worthwhile, even shorter bursts of prose exhibit profound neurological effects. Poetry elicits strong emotional responses in readers and, as one study shows, listeners. Heart rates, facial expressions, and “movement of their skin and arm hairs” were measured while participants listened to poetry. Forty percent ended up displaying visible goose bumps, as they would while listening to music or watching movies. As for their craniums:

Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.

These responses mostly occurred near the conclusion of a stanza and especially near the end of the poem. This fits in well with our inherent need for narrative: in the absence of a conclusion our brain automatically creates one, which, of course, leads to plenty of heartbreak and suffering when our speculations prove to be false. Instead we should turn to more poetry:

There is something fundamental to the poetic form that implies, creates, and instills pleasure.

Whether an Amiri Baraka verse or a Margaret Atwood trilogy, attention matters. Research at Stanford showed a neurological difference between reading for pleasure and focused reading, as if for a test. Blood flows to different neural areas depending on how reading is conducted. The researchers hope this might offer clues for advancing cognitive training methods.

I have vivid memories of my relationship with reading: trying to write my first book (Scary Monster Stories) at age five; creating a mock newspaper after the Bernard Goetz subway shooting when I was nine, my mother scolding me for “thinking about such things”; sitting in the basement of my home in the Jersey suburbs one weekend morning, determined to read the entirety of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I did.

Reading is like any skill. You have to practice it, regularly and constantly. While I never finished (or really much started) Scary Monster Stories, I have written nine books and read thousands more along the way. Though it’s hard to tell if reading has made me smarter or a better person, I like to imagine that it has.

What I do know is that life would seem a bit less meaningful if we didn’t share stories with one another. While many mediums for transmitting narratives across space and time exist, I’ve found none as pleasurable as cracking open a new book and getting lost in a story. Something profound is always discovered along the way.

Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy


Trolling is an online antisocial behaviour with negative psychological outcomes.

Current study predicted trolling perpetration from gender and personality.

Trolls more likely to be male with high levels of trait psychopathy and sadism

Trolls have lower affective empathy, and psychopathy moderates cognitive empathy.

Results have implications for establishing education and prevention programs.


Online trolling is of particular concern due to the harmful negative outcomes its victims experience. The current study sought to explore and extend the personality profile of Internet trolls. After gender was controlled for, psychopathy, sadism, and empathy (affective empathy, cognitive empathy, and social skills) were examined for their predictive utility of trolling behaviour. A sample of 415 participants (36% men, 63% women, 1% other) with a mean age of 23.37 years (SD = 7.19) completed an online questionnaire. Results showed that men were more likely than women to engage in trolling, and higher levels of trait psychopathy and sadism predicted trolling behaviour. Lower levels of affective empathy predicted perpetration of trolling, and trait psychopathy moderated the association between cognitive empathy and trolling. Results indicate that when high on trait psychopathy, trolls employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognising the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions. Thus, trolls appear to be master manipulators of both cyber-settings and their victims’ emotions.

Extremely Positive People Aren’t as Good at Empathy.

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People with extremely sunny attitudes find it difficult to empathize with people who are recounting a negative experience, according to a study recently published at PLOS ONE. Ironically, positive people also reported being better at empathizing than did people who labelled themselves as slightly less than bubbly.

For the study, participants were shown videos of people telling life stories: two happy and two sad. The viewers were asked to rate, second-by-second, the level of positive or negative emotion they thought the speaker was feeling. Alex Fradera, at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, describes the result:

“Participants with a more upbeat personality believed their accuracy on this task to be higher than others. However, the speakers had conducted an identical rating process on their own videos, and it turns out the happier participants were no closer to the true feelings than the more downbeat participants. In fact, happy participants found it harder to judge the emotional tone of a highly negative monologue, in which a participant described the death of a parent.”

Dev Patnaik, author and founder of Jump Associates, argues that empathy is not just a personal quality that we all (are blessed to) have. Empathy, he argues, is an essential business skill that corporations must possess to help their employees innovate and to create a loyal customer base.



Does Conventional Medical Training Destroy Empathy?

Does Conventional Medical Training Remove Empathy

A surprisingly consistent body of research exists indicating that conventional medical training actually reduces practitioner empathy. What is worse, the decline in empathy appears even more pronounced at the time that the curriculum shifts towards patient-care activities.

In one study published in 2009 in the journal Academic Medicine entitled “The devil is in the third year: a longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school,” the authors conclude:

It is ironic that the erosion of empathy occurs during a time when the curriculum is shifting toward patient-care activities; this is when empathy is most essential.”

In another, higher-powered systematic review published in the same journal last year entitled “Empathy decline and its reasons: a systematic review of studies with medical students and residents,” researchers looked at data from 1990-2010, which included 18 studies, and found:

The five longitudinal and two cross-sectional studies of residents showed a decrease in empathy during residency. The studies pointed to the clinical practice phase of training and the distress produced by aspects of the “hidden,” “formal,” and “informal” curricula as main reasons for empathy decline.”

They Concluded

The results of the reviewed studies, especially those with longitudinal data, suggest that empathy decline during medical school and residency compromises striving toward professionalism and may threaten health care quality.”

While the ironic decline of empathy associated with clinical practice during medical training is cause for concern, what may be even more disturbing is that the decline in empathy persists after training has ended.

In a 2005 study published in Academic Medicine and entitled “Mood change and empathy decline persist during three years of internal medicine training,” researchers noted that some of themood disturbances and declines in empathy associated with residency/internship “never fully recover,” indicating that conventional medical training may produce real, diagnosable psychological traumas that may never be fully resolved and may adversely affect the quality of healthcare provided.

Empathy, after all, has concrete and measurable therapeutic effects in others. In 2009, researchers found that practitioner empathy reduced the duration of the common cold in their patients. Conversely, a negative and/or indifferent attitude towards the patient has measurable adverse effects, also known as the nocebo effect.  Indeed, our recent article titled, “Research: Some Cancer Diagnoses Kill You Quicker Than the Cancer,” discusses the finding that the risk of suicide is up to 16 times higher and the risk of heart-related death 26.9 times higher during the first week following a cancer diagnosis versus those who were diagnosed cancer free.

Can you teach people to have empathy?


Two men facing each other

Empathy is a quality that is integral to most people’s lives – and yet the modern world makes it easy to lose sight of the feelings of others. But almost everyone can learn to develop this crucial personality trait, says Roman Krznaric.

Open Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird and one line will jump out at you: “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Human beings are naturally primed to embrace this message. According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people (the exceptions include those with psychopathic tendencies) have the ability to empathise wired into their brains – an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives.

The problem is that most don’t tap into their full empathic potential in everyday life.

You can easily find yourself passing by a mother struggling with a pram on some steps as you rush to a work meeting, or read about a tragic earthquake in a distant country then let it slip your mind as you click a link to check the latest football results.

Can you read someone’s mind through their eyes?

The empathy gap can appear in personal relationships too – like when I find myself shouting in frustration at my six-year-old twins, or fail to realise that my partner is doing more than her fair share of the housework.

So is there anything you can do to boost your empathy levels? The good news is that almost everyone can learn to be more empathic, just like we can learn to ride a bike or drive a car.

A good warm up is to do a quick assessment of your empathic abilities. Neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has devised a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes in which you are shown 36 pairs of eyes and have to choose one of four words that best describes what each person is feeling or thinking – for instance, jealous, arrogant, panicked or hateful.

The average score of around 26 suggests that the majority of people are surprisingly good – though far from perfect – at visually reading others’ emotions.

Going a step further, there are three simple but powerful strategies for unleashing the empathic potential that is latent in our neural circuitry.

Make a habit of “radical listening”

“What is essential,’ wrote Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication, “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within – to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing at that very moment.”

Listening out for people’s feelings and needs – whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer or a spouse who is upset at you for working late yet again – gives them a sense of being understood.


Let people have their say, hold back from interrupting and even reflect back what they’ve told you so they knew you were really listening. There’s a term for doing this – “radical listening”.

Radical listening can have an extraordinary impact on resolving conflict situations. Rosenberg points out that in employer-employee disputes, if both sides literally repeat what the other side just said before speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.

Look for the human behind everything

A second step is to deepen empathic concern for others by developing an awareness of all those individuals hidden behind the surface of our daily lives, on whom we may depend in some way. A Buddhist-inspired approach to this is to spend a whole day becoming mindful of every person connected to your routine actions.

So when you have your morning coffee, think about the people who picked the coffee beans. As you button your shirt, consider the labour behind the label by asking yourself: “Who sewed on these buttons? Where in the world are they? What are their lives like?”

Think about all the people you take for granted

Then continue throughout the day, bringing this curiosity to who is driving the train, vacuuming the office floor or stacking the supermarket shelves. It is precisely such mindful awareness that can spark empathic action on the behalf of others, whether it’s buying Fairtrade coffee or becoming friends with the office cleaner.

Bertolt Brecht wrote a wonderful poem about this called A Worker Reads History, which begins: “Who built the seven gates of Thebes? / The books are filled with the names of kings / Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?”

Become curious about strangers


I used to regularly walk past a homeless man around the corner from where I live in Oxford and take virtually no notice of him. One day I stopped to speak to him.

It turned out his name was Alan Human and he had a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. We subsequently developed a friendship based on our mutual interest in Aristotle’s ethics and pepperoni pizza.

This encounter taught me that having conversations with strangers opens up our empathic minds. We can not only meet fascinating people but also challenge the assumptions and prejudices that we have about others based on their appearance, accents or backgrounds.

It’s about recovering the curiosity everyone had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. Get beyond superficial talk but beware interrogating people. Respect the advice of oral historian Studs Terkel – who always spoke to people on the bus on his daily commute: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”

These are the kinds of conversations you will find happening at the world’s firstEmpathy Museum, which is launching in the UK in late 2015 and will then be travelling to Australia and other countries.

Amongst the unusual exhibitions will be a human library, where instead of borrowing a book you borrow a person for conversation – maybe a Sikh teenager, an unhappy investment banker or a gay father. In other words, the kind of people you may not get to meet in everyday life.

Empathy is the cornerstone of healthy human relationships.

As the psychologist and inventor of emotional intelligence Daniel Goleman puts it, without empathy a person is “emotionally tone deaf”.

It’s clear that with a little effort nearly everyone can put more of their empathic potential to use. So try slipping on your empathy shoes and make an adventure of looking at the world through the eyes of others.

Witnessing hateful people in pain modulates brain activity in regions associated with physical pain and reward.

How does witnessing a hateful person in pain compare to witnessing a likable person in pain? The current study compared the brain bases for how we perceive likable people in pain with those of viewing hateful people in pain. While social bonds are built through sharing the plight and pain of others in the name of empathy, viewing a hateful person in pain also has many potential ramifications. In this functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study, Caucasian Jewish male participants viewed videos of (1) disliked, hateful, anti-Semitic individuals, and (2) liked, non-hateful, tolerant individuals in pain. The results showed that, compared with viewing liked people, viewing hateful people in pain elicited increased responses in regions associated with observation of physical pain (the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the somatosensory cortex), reward processing (the striatum), and frontal regions associated with emotion regulation. Functional connectivity analyses revealed connections between seed regions in the left anterior cingulate cortex and right insular cortex with reward regions, the amygdala, and frontal regions associated with emotion regulation. These data indicate that regions of the brain active while viewing someone in pain may be more active in response to the danger or threat posed by witnessing the pain of a hateful individual more so than the desire to empathize with a likable person’s pain.


How to Improve Your Virtual Communication Skills.


Healthy communication is the cornerstone of cultivating and sustaining healthy relationships. We connect and express ourselves through the spoken and written word, which ultimately allows us to develop our “voice” in the world.

How well you communicate directly correlates with how understood and heard you feel by the response you receive from the other end of the dialogue.

When it comes to communicating through text or email, the rules and guidelines for good communication don’t change. The integrity of your words should remain the same, and all the skills and etiquette you would apply in real life need to be applied.

Words are powerful with or without voice, and it’s even more important to be clear when tone is absent. Words are vulnerable to being twisted and misconstrued when they lack intonation, and human expression.

How many times have you sent an email or text to someone only to find that they have completely misinterpreted or misread what you were trying to say? Your correspondence with others reflects your ability to express yourself in real time, so if you struggle with getting your point across in general, you will most likely bump into obstacles when trying to do it through the written word.

Whether you are writing a work email, communicating with your Ex about something uncomfortable, or responding to a difficult situation, here are 5 skills to help you draft better correspondence.

These are skills that work both on and off the computer or smart phone, and should be applied in any conversation that requires a delicate touch.

1. Make sure your intention is clear

In any correspondence you always want to make your intention clear. There is usually one point you want to get across, but if you just let your words flow without much reflection you are bound to step into a landmine. Before you even start drafting clarify your ultimate intention. Is it to get the person to do something? Are you looking for an answer or response? Do you want an apology? Knowing what you are hoping to get will increase your chances of actually achieving that goal. Asking, “what is my intention?” is a good practice before beginning any conversation.

2. Establish boundaries

Believe it or not, boundaries can be conveyed as much through written word as they can in person. A boundary is a clear line defining what you are willing to accept or tolerate, and what is too much. Boundaries are conveyed through language like “I can’t allow you to…” or “I cannot accept the fact that…”

Boundaries can also come from your strong belief in how you feel. This is different then needing to be right, it’s more about being very clear that your experience is valid and true for you. This works when you are being accused of something, or blamed for something you don’t feel you did. A response to this might look something like “I appreciate your perspective, but I am confident that this isn’t true for me…”

3. Empathy

Using language that conveys a sense of empathy in your correspondence is always a good practice. Everyone wants to feel acknowledged and understood on some level, so you will need to pause and understand where the other person is coming from. Even if you don’t agree, it’s always a good idea to say that you can understand why or how they see things the way they do, and to let them know that you understand their position on the issues at hand.

Empathy is diffuser in communication, and it can calm even the most upset person. Look at it like a virtual hug. Empathy is contagious, and it’s hard to respond to it in a negative way.

4. Accountability

In any two-way conversation there are always two opinions, two perspectives and two subjective experiences. It’s rarely always the other person. Being accountable to how you might have contributed to the breakdown of what is happening, or acknowledging that you didn’t communicate well is a great habit to develop. Stepping back and asking yourself how you could have done things differently will help you clarify your point as well. Simply writing something like “I recognize that I have some responsibility in this situation…” opens up space for the other person to do the same.

5. Always maintain integrity

The written word can be as much a trigger as speaking with someone in person. There are some situations where even the most skillfully drafted communication will still ignite a negative response from the other party. If you are dealing with verbal attacks, and you know you aren’t going to get anywhere step out of the power struggle and end it with integrity. This is a graceful exit without being pulled down to the other person’s level.

Stepping out requires letting go of needing to feel validated or heard, and accepting that this person simply cannot engage on a healthy and productive level. This is a great practice in both virtual and real life because it shows you that you are always in control of how you feel, and how you respond.

Source: Purpose fairy

The sport hormone?


A review argues that the hormone oxytocin affects athletic performance, because of its role in modulation of emotional and social processes important to team sports. Jill Jouret reports.

In elite sports, winning can come down to subtle aspects of performance. For example, an individual’s gestures and expressions of emotion can affect team performance and a contest’s outcome. A study of touch behaviour (eg, high-fives, chest bumps) among players in America‘s National Basketball Association showed that teams who touched more had better season records. An investigation of football players’ body language after successful penalty kicks in World Cup and European Championship matches noted that specific celebratory behaviours were associated with the team eventually winning a shootout. Perhaps the emotional display by the elated kicker led to a positive emotion in a teammate, who struck the ball better on his attempt. Whether through touch or emotional expression, trust and goodwill communicated among players motivates the team toward higher achievement.

review by Gert-Jan Pepping and Erik J Timmermans, published in September, 2012, in The Scientific World Journal,argues for oxytocin as the biochemical basis of such emotion transfer that can lead to enhanced performance in team sports. Via its action as a peripheral hormone and a central neurotransmitter, oxytocin modulates a diverse range of mammalian processes. Peripheral effects include regulation of uterine contraction during labour, stimulation of lactation, and modulation of inflammation. Oxytocin receptors are expressed by neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and it has been shown to affect pair bonding, maternal behaviour, and sexual receptivity. Oxytocin is destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract, and does not seem to cross the blood—brain barrier when given intravenously, so its effects are studied in animals by injection of a synthetic form directly into the brain, and in humans via administration of a nasal spray.

Oxytocin is often referred to as the feel-good hormone, because it is released in response to touch and is associated with feelings of calmness and stress reduction. A positive feedback loop means that higher oxytocin concentrations further increase the desire for tactile interaction. This association seems to be the basis for its role in promotion of mother—child bonds and fidelity in monogamous pairs. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience provided behavioural evidence of oxytocin’s involvement in maintenance of bonds among committed couples. After administration of intranasal oxytocin, men in monogamous relationships kept a greater distance between themselves and an attractive researcher than did those given placebo, and approached an attractive image more slowly, whereas no such effect was seen with single men. No wonder oxytocin is also known as the love hormone.

In their review, Pepping and Timmermans outline the argument for giving oxytocin yet a third moniker—the sports hormone. Positive emotions and prosocial behaviour are associated with improved performance in achievement settings in general, hence increasing investment in work environments that enhance team spirit and boost individual motivation. In sports, emotional expressions underpin the continuing exchange of information and mood between teammates and opponents. An emotional display by one player can inspire a similar mood in teammates, and the team’s overall disposition can motivate individual performance. This convergence of mood, or emotional contagion, is a key element in team unity. Measuring a player’s hormone levels during competition is a logistical challenge, but the studies reviewed by Pepping and Timmermans show that, in controlled settings, oxytocin affects processes central to emotional contagion and social perception.

Empathy denotes cognitive ability to adopt another person’s point of view, or emotional capacity to have a shared feeling on the basis of another person’s experience. Cognitive empathy is an important quality for an athlete, since it allows them to understand and predict other players’ behaviour, and emotional empathy contributes to convergence of mood (and motivation) among teammates. The Multifaceted Empathy Test is used to measure empathy, by asking study participants to rate emotional reactions to pictorial stimuli; those given one dose of intranasal oxytocin before the test reported higher empathy than those given placebo. Intranasal oxytocin also improved performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which measures participants’ ability to infer a mental state from subtle facial cues.

Reading emotions such as fear or determination in other players can help athletes make quick decisions about their own actions, and oxytocin seems to be a key biological component for processing these social cues. Pepping and Timmermans describe a study in which MRI showed higher brain activity in specific regions associated with emotion recognition when participants given oxytoxin (vs placebo) were shown images of facial expressions. One dose of oxytocin also improved recognition (ie, at lower intensities) of an emotion emerging on a dynamic, computer-generated face that started with a neutral expression.

Studies showing an effect of oxytocin on gaze behaviour suggest a mechanism for how it modulates emotion recognition, and provide further evidence of its involvement in social exchanges. Tracking the eye movements of men given intranasal oxytocin (vs placebo) showed longer gaze duration and fixation on the eye region of neutral faces. Eyes are the main source of information in interpersonal communication, and gaze behaviour is central to impression-forming among athletes. Sports psychologists have studied gaze behaviour in the context of football penalty kicks, to define the best kicking strategy (eg, to look or not to look at the target), but from a goalkeeper’s point of view, kickers who gaze directly at them for longer create a more imposing impression. To the extent that oxytocin is involved in detection of confidence or fear, a boost in either party could make the difference.

At the elite level, in which superior talent is universal (and modesty in interviews is advised), team unity is often credited for a win. Trust, generosity, and cooperation are indispensable processes for building and maintaining team cohesion, and according to Pepping and Timmermans, oxytocin is once again involved. In games with monetary stakes, individuals given oxytocin make trusting decisions more often than those given placebo. People are also more generous under the influence of oxytocin; when asked to make a masked, one-sided decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger, a group given oxytocin was 80% more generous than those given placebo. Oxytocin enhanced cooperative decision making when participants played games with economic incentives to cooperate. Stronger incentives lead to greater cooperation, but only if social information was present. When social information was absent, players who received oxytocin were actually less cooperative, which suggests that the oxytocin system intricately modulates risk-taking and risk-aversion in social exchanges.

With so much evidence for oxytocin’s role in athletic performance, particularly in the context of team sports, will players be stashing oxytocin inhalers into their equipment bags for a quick hit mid-game? Pepping and Timmermans point out that oxytocin’s effects are not universally prosocial. Compared with placebo, oxytocin administration increased ratings of envy (ie, a negative emotional reaction to another player’s good fortune) and gloating (ie, malicious pleasure at another’s misfortune) in economic games designed to elicit these negative social emotions. Athletic pursuits are awash with relative gain and loss situations, and keeping composure is important for success, so an artificial boost of oxytocin could be ill advised.

As professional cycling joins the rogue’s gallery of sporting doping scandals, talk of another performance-enhancing drug might seem distasteful. But research suggests that there are subtle ways to improve ability through the natural stimulation of oxytocin, which will always be legal. The high-five, the fist-pump, and the group hug remain staple elements of sporting life, and dosing up on a little more might just make the difference between winners and losers.

Source: Lancet


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