Every woman knows that men "don't talk," that they "have trouble getting in touch with their feelings," assuming they actually experience anything women could even recognize as feelings. "Real men don't cry," we've learned, they are "physical, not emotional creatures," "their brains are built differently," and if that hasn't convinced you, "they come from Mars." Frustrating, isn't it? But now you can throw away all those relationship books and psychology magazines, girls. Forget the inconclusive counselling sessions. Hope is on the horizon, in the form of – you guessed it – pharmaceuticals.
A recent study by scientists at the Universities of Oxford and Bonn experimented with a hormone-laced nasal spray -- which has already earned the cutesy nickname of "cuddle spray" -- containing the neuropeptide oxytocin on a group of forty-eight healthy males. "Half received an oxytocin nose spray at the start of the experiment," Drs. Keith Kendrick, René Hurlemann, and their colleagues reported in the April 7 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, "the other half [received] a placebo. The researchers then showed their test subjects photos of emotionally charged situations in the form of a crying child, a girl hugging her cat, and a grieving man. The test subjects were then invited to express the depth of feeling they experienced for the persons shown."
According to the press release, Dr. Hurlemann, a psychiatrist
was able to state that "significantly higher emotional empathy levels were recorded for the oxytocin group than for the placebo group," despite the fact that the participants in the placebo group were perfectly able to provide rational interpretations of the facial expressions displayed. The administration of oxytocin simply had the effect of enhancing the ability to experience fellow-feeling. The males in the test achieved levels which would normally only be expected in women. Under normal circumstances, the "weak" sex enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to the subject of "empathy."
The doctors also conducted a second experiment where the male participants carried out an observation test on their computers:
Correct answers produced an approving face on the screen, wrong ones a disapproving one. Alternatively, the feedback appeared as green (correct) or red (false) circles. "In general, learning was better when the feedback was shown in the form of faces," states Dr. Keith Kendrick of the Cambridge Babraham Institute in England. "But, once again, the oxytocin group responded clearly better to the feedback in the form of facial expression than did the placebo group."
The project thus demonstrated that oxytocin "treatment increased emotional empathy ratings in men up to the higher level normally seen in untreated women [emphasis added]."
Just imagine the commercial opportunities! If this hormone genuinely wreaks as much havoc on men's gray matter as the scientists claim -- I mean, if a simple nasal spray can actually teach men how to talk -- where can I invest in a new line of oxytocin-based women's fragrances? My bank account could sure use an extra million or two (or twenty).
But the hormone has other effects as well. Oxytocin, a natural human protein that is manufactured in the pituitary gland, triggers labor pains and "strengthens the emotional bond between a mother and her new-born child," particularly during breast-feeding. "Oxytocin is released on a large scale during an orgasm, too." The doctors report that "this hormone might … be useful as medication for diseases such as schizophrenia, which are frequently associated with reduced social approachability and social withdrawal." Or maybe it will help when your sometime boyfriend forgets to call you back for a week. Same thing, right?
This stuff sounds like relationship Viagra, and I suppose now's the time to throw in a joke about nasal sprays for putting the toilet seat back up and taking out the trash. Ha-ha. But the real question might be just how "touchy-feely" women really want the men in their lives to be. Isn't part of the appeal of men their ability to just be there and listen to you without automatically verbalizing every thought that flits through their head? Do we really want their eyes to mist over when we can hardly hold back our own tears? And can't a certain aloofness in a relationship allow trust and love to grow? Alas, the research has nothing to say about such matters.
But what I'm wondering is whether we truly want to hear everything men have to say for themselves. Maybe some things really are best left unsaid after all. Last year Garrison Keillor wrote a column that included these terrifying lines:
Women say, "Why don't you talk to me anymore? I wish you'd tell me what's going on with you!" so I start talking (like now) and they say, "How can you say that?" This is our dilemma.
I haven't stopped shaking yet.
But if the new nasal spray goes into mass production one of these days and we suddenly find ourselves living in a brave new world of compulsively emoting, verbalizing men, I suspect we might soon start pining for the strong silent type once more. After all, doesn't true poetry lie hidden in the space between the words...?