The old man and the game of trust

An Old Man Putting Dry Rice on the Hearth 1881 Vincent van GoghLet us play a game, you and I.

I will give you some money – here, have this. Of course, it’s not a joke. You can take that 100$ bill and walk out of here. No one’ll say a thing. Or come after you.

Or you could do something nice. You see young Joe over there? You don’t know him? Of course you don’t. Doesn’t matter, he’s a good lad. Let me tell you what you can do. You can give him a small share of that 100$ you got. And I’ll say what, however much you decide to give him, I’ll give him twice the amount you do, so that he now has a tight little bundle. And now that he has so much money, I’m sure he’d be feeling grateful, and give you back some of that cash. So, on your part it’s not really a gift, but an investment, one that could make you a nice little packet in the end.

How will you know that he won’t take the money and run, you ask? Well, I can’t answer that. It’s up to the goodness of your heart, and your trust in the goodness of your fellow man. As I said, I won’t make your choice for you. You decide how much you want to give, and he decides how much he wants to give back.

You’ll give him 10$, you say? Fine, fine, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. By and by, you see this little bottle? Why don’t you take a sniff of that? Nothing that’ll harm you, I promise. All natural, all the goodness of the earth in this little bottle – a perfume of my own invention. And while you smell that and think over how much you want to give young Joe here, let me tell you a little story.

Henry Hallett Dale 1904
Henry Dale in 1904
1906 was a cold year, an odd year, a mixed year. Women had the vote for the first time in Europe, Mount Vesuvius erupted and San Francisco got levelled by an earthquake. And while all this was going on, young Henry Dale was slogging his days and nights away at a lab in England, tinkering with an extract he had made out of the pituitary – that’s a teensy little gland in your head. He injected his extract into all manners of animals –

William Blair-Bell 1931
William Bell, the obstetrician
cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea-pigs – you name it, he had it. And wherever he tried, it had the same effect – pregnant females would go into labour upon receiving that extract, no matter what the species. He was still three years from his medical degree at this point, eight years from the discovery that would bring him the Nobel Prize exactly thirty years later, but never mind that, that’s a story for another day. He stuck his results with the pituitary extract into a small paper in a little journal, and there they lay low, until three years later, when another Englishman, William Blair Bell, dug those results up, and took the next step of giving similar extracts to pregnant, human women.

Bell, now, he was a smart man, and quickly did he observe the benefits of the extract in helping deliveries and preserving the health of women post-childbirth. In 1927, a group of scientists at the Parkes Davis research laboratories came up with a name for this little beauty – Oxytocin, from Greek ωκύς, meaning quick, and τοκετός, meaning childbirth. Oxytocin, the active component in Dale’s pituitary extract, quickly made its way into maternity wards worldwide, to assist women whose labours were slow and complicated. In fact, it’s still used there today.

Dr. Vincent du Vigneaud
Vincent du Vigneaud
The next character in our story happens to be an American, named Vincent du Vigneaud. Vincent was a biochemist, and in the late 1940s and 1950s, he spent all his time studying the structure of small peptide hormones in pituitary extracts. In particular, (yep, you guessed it) oxytocin. By the time 1953 rolled around, Vincent had come up a complete sequence for oxytocin. And in 1954, he was the first to synthesize it chemically. Nowadays, you see plenty of synthetic hormones and peptides floating around, but let me tell you young fellas – that was the very first time that something of this sort had ever been accomplished. As might be expected, he received a Nobel himself, just a year later.

Just what is this oxytocin, you ask? Well, oxytocin is a hormone, a chemical messenger that travels via the blood and gives your organs their marching orders. Oxytocin is dumped into the blood by the pituitary gland I told you about, but that’s not where it’s made. Nope, in fact it’s in the brain that most of your oxytocin is made, in a quaint structure called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sends its oxytocin down into the pituitary, and the pituitary decides to release it into the circulation whenever necessary.

Oxytocin color
Chemical structure of oxytocin
But oxytocin, you see, is not just a hormone. It’s also a neuropeptide. That’s a long word I want you to remember. It means it’s made and released inside the brain, and it affects the way the cells of the brain behave. The hypothalamus, you see, doesn’t just send all its oxytocin down to the pituitary. It releases some of it inside the brain itself, in circuits that play some really specialized roles.

What does it do there, you ask? Well that’s what I have been waiting to tell you since the beginning! You see, by the 1980s and 1990s, men (and women too, sure) of science were becoming very curious about what oxytocin does, besides stimulating one’s womb and mammary glands. They already knew that oxytocin levels hit the roof when a woman gives birth, and later when she breastfeeds. Does all that oxytocin floating around affect her brain, affect the way she thinks?

But first let me tell you, no one pithy molecule can be enough to bring about all the changes that arise in a woman’s brain and behavior once she becomes a mother. Her aspect becomes a unique combination of tenderness over the offspring, and aggression towards anyone unwise enough to cross the said offspring. Over the years a bunch of studies have come up that show that oxytocin does something to the brain that makes you love your ugly offspring – it makes fathers act more positively towards their babies, it makes women more responsive to an infant’s cries. It makes innocent rat females, who have never been near a male rat in their lives, go and pick up distressed pups as though they were the ones that given birth to them. It makes monkey fathers give away more food to their offsprings. In other words, it helps you take baby steps towards ideal parenthood.

Prairie voles
A happy prairie vole family
But before you become a parent, you need to, putting it crudely, find a mate. Now, I’ve seen two types of folks in my life. There are those that find their one true love and stick to them through thick and thin, and there are those who go through life sampling honey at one flower after the other, never settling down. You may not believe me when I say this, but the animal world has its own settlers and wanderers too. Voles are cute, little, furry creatures that come in two varieties. The Prairie vole is your straight-laced gentleman – chooses one mate, and chooses it for life. Husband and wife live together, sleep together, bring up children together. I’ll kid you not, when one partner dies, I have seen the other grieve.

Baby meadow vole
Meadow vole
But then you have the other kind – the meadow vole. The meadow vole is the free spirit of the vole world. Where the prairie vole is faithful, the meadow vole is promiscuous, where the male prairie vole lends an active hand towards the rearing of its children, the male meadow vole could not care less. You put a meadow vole in a chamber with an old flame and a handsome new stranger, it divides its time equally between the two – while the Prairie vole would go straight for the one it had mated with before. Now, here’s the funny bit. If you simply inject a drug that blocks oxytocin from acting, just a little time before this exercise, suddenly you get a prairie vole that embraces the free lifestyle and divides its time equally between its two mates.

So you now have oxytocin, a wonder drug for women in labour, and an influencer of baby-love and romantic fidelity. But that’s barely scratching the surface. Oxytocin can help you recognize whether the face opposite you is mad or sad, it can make you gaze deeply into another’s eyes. And as a little experiment published in 2005 showed, it can decide how much you trust a stranger with money. You see fellas, these scientists in Switzerland came up with a game called ‘The Trust Game’, and got a bunch of students to play it. Half of these players were allowed to sniff a little whiff of oxytocin before the game. And guess what the study found? The players who smelled the oxytocin in the beginning, tended to be way more trusting than the rest.

What is the trust game, you ask? Heh, you have a short memory, don’t you?

Anyway, now that you have heard my story, and taken a good sniff outta that bottle, it’s time to answer me, my good man. How much are you really willing to give young Joe out there?

Further reading

  1. Carson, D. S., Guastella, A. J., Taylor, E. R., Mcgregor, I. S. & Mcgregor, I. S. A brief history of oxytocin and its role in modulating psychostimulant effects. J. Psychopharmacol. 27, 231–247 (2013).
  2. Veening, J. G., Jong, T. R. De, Waldinger, M. D., Korte, S. M. & Olivier, B. The role of oxytocin in male and female reproductive behavior. Eur. J. Pharmacol. 753, 209–228 (2015).
  3. Marlin, B. J., Mitre, M., James, A. D., Chao, M. V & Froemke, R. C. Oxytocin enables maternal behaviour by balancing cortical inhibition. (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14402
  4. Young, L. J. & Wang, Z. The neurobiology of pair bonding. Nat Neurosci 7, 1048–1054 (2004).
  5. Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U. & Fehr, E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. 435, 673–676 (2005).

Featured image credits – An Old Man Putting Dry Rice on the Hearth, 1881, Vincent van Gogh

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