Unlearning

Oxytocin first entered my field of awareness as the internal hormone that stimulates the uterus to contract in childbirth.  A closely related chemical, relaxin, has the opposite effect on the connective tissues, softening up the ligaments to allow the pelvis to open as the baby comes out.  This relaxin makes the whole connective tissue net relent, in fact, such that some pregnant scoliotics can find that their curvature is getting worse during pregnancy, as the guy wires that have been holding the spine in place let go.  What few realize is that this is an opportunity to make things better, with the right exercise and manipulation, a woman with a scoliosis can make substantial improvements during and after pregnancy due to this lability, this plasticity created by oxytocin.

But to smooth muscle, like the uterus, oxytocin stimulates not relaxation but strong contraction, as we recently found out that it does in the myofibroblasts, the smooth-muscle-like fibroblasts that hook into the fascial sheets with their integrins and exert a pull to pre-tense the fabric.

Michel Odent, the French obstetrician, was among the first to identify oxytocin with bonding, and it has since been called the love drug (or more properly, the peptide of affiliation), for its powerful effect in bonding mother and child for life (The Scientification of Love, Michel Odent).

It has been known for some time that breastfeeding and the milk letdown reflex creates a short deluge of oxytocin, which has the happy double effect of bonding the mother to the baby, as well as contracting the uterus to expel the afterbirth and prevent hemorrhaging.  (See how well it works – the cord is always long enough to allow the baby to come to the nipple without cutting the cord.  Don’t get me started on the American way of birth – see The Business of Being Born, Rikki Lake).

But now comes the knockout punch:  Walter Freeman (neuroscience, Berkeley, gleaned from Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself) now argues the connection between love, oxytocin, and unlearning.  We have often thought of therapy as taking on a new learning, and therapists try to enhance the ability to change and learn.  For us body therapists, it is body learning – how do we take on new habits, replace old compensations with natural movement or more efficient posture, make different choices.  It was seen as novelty vs. survival, natural conservatism vs curiosity.

While the learning part of this has been much studied, the unlearning that is required to forge new neural pathways has been largely ignored.  Freeman argues that oxytocin is the principal neuromodulator of unlearning.  Neuromodulators are a family of peptides that are not neurotransmitters but instead modulate the tone of the whole neuro-transmitter / synaptic scene.

So, dearly beloved, when oxytocin is released (which happens in short surges, not sustained time-release) the brain undergoes a rapid transformation into a very plastic state, literally melting away the neuro-synaptic connections that held previous learning in place, opening up the nervous system for massive new learning.  When you think about it, that’s about what love is, or at least a very significant part of it: the willingness to reorder your priorities for the object of your love.  Such a massive reordering is certainly in order when 1) committed love strikes, and 2) when that first child comes along.  And again with the second child; and again with the third child. (Or third litter, if we were talking lower mammals – the ewe needs to let go of her attachment to last year’s lambs in favor of this year’s – oxytocin clears the brain for the reordering and predisposes her to the new and necessary bonding.)  It is unclear yet whether the oxytocin actually predisposes the parent to love or the lover to be kind, it may just predispose the recipient to learning new patterns – and the child / lover is there to learn new patterns with.  Oxytocin may not be the wonder love drug, but just so good at reducing our feelings of separation and distress that the pain we would normally feel at losing previous attachments and earlier lessons is much reduced.

Nevertheless, it seems that oxytocin (actually another chemical neighbor, vasopressin) helps the selfish young man in “Knocked Up” rise to the occasion of new fatherhood, putting away his old ways and taking on new responsibilities.  On the other side of the coin, oxytocin levels of adoptees are lower, and remain lower even for several years after being adopted into a loving family.  People get more trusting after even sniffing oxytocin – it’s the commitment drug.

So here’s what comes out of this for the therapist:  If you want your clients to change, change deeply, and change permanently, they will do so more easily with oxytocin released in their system.  So you need to create that Ecstasy-like feeling of bonding with your client, allow them to fall in love with you (if they aren’t falling for someone else, in which case the job is half done for you), and this ‘transference’ will help wipe the slate of their brain traces clean, so that they can learn a new way of being.  It is actually easier, I think, to create that feeling of bonding through touch than through talk.

Just don’t get carried away, and don’t forget to disenchant and let them go at the end, or when the time is right.

And since this is not an advisable or safe course of action, you’ll be happy to know that loving attention – such as that we should be able to show for each client, will do some of the same thing.  If oxytocin is the drug of forgetting – and making room for new learning at that level – then attention is the the ‘cure’ for making sure the new programming is laid down properly.

So try giving your clients a a minute’s shot of unconditional love at the beginning of the session, to raise their oxytocin levels, and then focus their attention closely and repeatedly, through movement or verbal cues, on the behavior you want to establish.

Same old Freudian stuff, but with an interesting chemical underlay.

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One Response to “Unlearning”

  1. Neil Goodenough Says:

    I like where this is going. Doidge has come into our lives with great synchronicity. And Freud has been so mis aligned and mis understood. Noone has come even close to his insight and judgement this last century. He is well worth even a brief peruse.

    So hold our hands, Tom, as you explore and navigate this passage. There is everything to gain, change, and I know that I am one of many gaining from your guidance.

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