This is a story about a fickle little hormone that plays a large role in our lives. The name of the hormone is oxytocin, and until recently it was mostly dismissed by scientists. They knew it played a role in inducing labor and facilitating breast-feeding, but otherwise didn’t give it much attention.
But over the past 10 years, oxytocin has come up in the world, and several researchers have begun making big claims about it. Now dubbed “the trust hormone,” oxytocin, researchers say, affects everything from our day-to-day life to how we feel about our government.
The narrative of oxytocin — the trust hormone — is being rewritten. To understand the role that oxytocin plays in your own life, consider the experience of a small 9-year-old girl named Isabelle. (NPR is not using the full family name in this story for privacy reasons.)
Isabelle lives with her mother, Jessica, in a leafy East Coast suburb. Often, Jessica says, she’ll be out running an errand when she’ll bump into a well-meaning parent whose child goes to the same school as her daughter. The parent, Jessica says, invariably has news to share about an experience with Isabelle, and the conversations always go the same way:
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I saw your daughter at school today. She’s so cute, she always tells me, ‘I love you’ when I see her in the hallway,’ ” says Jessica. “And I’ll just be grimacing thinking, ‘There we go again.’ ”
Isabelle and her father look out a window
Isabelle, you see, says “I love you” to everyone: to parents at her school, to people from the neighborhood, to the salesman at Circuit City. “Oh, all the time,” Jessica says. “To Isabelle, there are no strangers — only friends she’s not yet met.”
The problem is that Isabelle has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder with a number of symptoms. The children are often physically small and often have developmental delays. But also, kids and adults with Williams love people and are pathologically trusting: They literally have no social fear.
Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem with the area in their brain that regulates the manufacture and release of oxytocin. Somehow, the system in which oxytocin operates has been disrupted in a way that makes it essentially biologically impossible for kids like Isabelle to distrust.
And this presents a terrible dilemma for Jessica. Isabelle completely trusts the world, but of course, the world is not worthy of complete trust.
And so several years ago, Jessica decided that, Williams be damned, she herself would teach Isabelle to distrust. There were other symptoms of the disorder that Jessica’s perseverance had overcome: Though Williams kids often have severe cognitive problems, Isabelle had learned to read.
But Jessica says no matter what she did, the trust her daughter offers perfect strangers could not be extinguished.
“I just kept thinking if I can just find the right tools, if I can buy a toy, if I can buy her a video, if we can model the behavior and reward it with sticker charts,” Jessica says. “But it didn’t amount to so much. That willingness to open herself up — we can’t get it to go away. ”