Friday, March 23, 2007

Knitting and Oxytocin

There is a new knitting group that has formed at work. We meet every Wednesday at noon (prompting us to consider a name with “hump” in it), with a different set of people each week, depending on competing demands. I have not missed a week as of yet, so far being able to manage my schedule to keep such a precious time free. This would be the second group in which I am a member. My other group, the Knitting Knuts (or Hens according to the husband) have been meeting for about 4 years, once each month on a Saturday afternoon/evening/night. We knit and drink wine and eat whatever inventions the members have pulled together (one time we had 3 soups and another time there was only dessert items). It has developed into a stable group of 5 people, with 2-3 others who appear occasionally. The formation of the new group at work has prompted me to consider the value and appeal of being a member of a knitting group. And, of course, I have considered the role of the brain and am wondering about the neurochemical basis of the formation and maintenance of these social groups. Oxytocin is a peptide neurotransmitter in the brain that has been linked to a range of social behavior. Perhaps the knitting groups are raising our levels of oxytocin, which contributes to the positive impact of the groups.

Oxytocin has long been recognized as an important hormone for a variety of reproductive functions, including the milk let-down reflex, uterine contractions during labor, and smooth muscle contractions during orgasm. It also is involved in the formation of stable mating bonds, which have been studied most thoroughly in little rodents called prairie voles. It turns out that prairie voles are monogamous, forming a pair bond with a mate and keeping that mate for many breeding seasons. If the brain areas that respond to oxytocin in the female prairie vole are removed or somehow disabled, the pair bond fails to form and the prairie vole becomes polygamous. The links below will connect you to some interesting information about oxytocin and the researchers who are leading the effort to understand its effects in humans.

Recent studies in humans have revealed that oxytocin has a complex role in social behavior. It does seem to be involved in mate attraction, although these studies are preliminary and more work needs to be done before any definitive role of oxytocin can be stated. You’ll find a compelling article on this subject in the February 2006 issue of National Geographic:
It is also being studied in relation to trust. If participants in an experiment are given a dose of oxytocin, they are more likely to trust an investment partner with their money than if they were given a placebo (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher & Fehr; 2005, Nature, vol. 435, pp. 674-676). Oxytocin has been shown to also reduce the threat impact of faces with scared expressions (Kirsch et al.; 2005, The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 25(49), pp. 11489-11493). Normally, viewing a scared face will stimulate the amygdala, which then initiates a defensive response that is helpful in preparing the person to deal with whatever threat has produced the scared expression. For example, the amygdala can stimulate the hypothalamus, which causes the production of a stress hormone, cortisol, which gets circulated throughout the body and allows cells to use their stored energy to fuel an escape response and then help the body return to its normal state. When Kirsch and his colleagues gave participants oxytocin, their amygdala was not as responsive to the scared expressions. However, they were not aware of a change in anxiety: the oxytocin-treated participants said they felt the same as without oxytocin, even though their amygdala function was reduced. Apparently it’s all happening subconsciously!
For years the dogma in stress research was that cortisol was the pivotal stress hormone, and understanding its function was the key to understanding the stress response. Shelley Taylor has questioned this approach and her group has provided evidence that oxytocin is an important mediator of the stress response, as well. In her “tend and befriend” hypothesis she states that women are more likely than men to form social bonds and to use those bonds to counteract events that threaten one’s well being. Oxytocin is produced as part of the stress response and promotes these social bond responses (Taylor et al.; 2000, Psychological Review, vol. 107, pp. 411-429). This brings me back (finally!) to the knitting groups.

I didn’t expect my knitting groups to be so important to me. I look forward to them more than most other events and am extremely sad when they are postponed or cancelled. They are the only formal social groups I have, not being one to go to church or an exercise class, for example. Is it because of the knitting? I would think so, except that I knit all the time and often knit less when with the groups than at other times. The actual knitting might be important for other members, who only knit when the group meets. But for me, it must be something else. I thought it might be the food and wine, until the “hump” group started meeting and I found myself just as hooked.

One common attribute of the groups that is important for me is the chance to view my role models in a context in which I feel equal to them. As a Knut (Hen) I observe how very successful women have managed their careers and personal lives, how they have struggled to balance their responsibilities and goals. I learn something new at every meeting. They are all somehow connected to financial matters (accountants, financial planner, nonprofit organization consultant, lawyers), and so I find myself picking up that type of information, as well. There will occasionally be a query about how the brain works, a challenge because I want to go beyond the generalities and talk about the particulars, but mostly it’s about people, food and money. And yarn, fiber and knitting tools, of course!

As a Hump…

OK, time to settle on a name for this group. Our school mascot is the Camel (interesting stories: and we meet on Wednesdays, making the use of the word “hump” doubly appealing or appalling. So, from now on I will refer to this group as the Camel Hump Knitters, or, for short and less offense, the Camel knitters.

The Camel knitters are women who work in many areas at the college, including librarians, professors, administrators, a publication designer and the ice rink’s Zamboni driver/women’s cross country coach/grounds keeper. It is unlikely that I would have an opportunity to meet and get to know our Zamboni driver under normal circumstances, but knitting tends to bring together an eclectic mix of people.

Perhaps it’s the oxytocin…to be continued soon.