August 30, 2013

Can You Bottle Love & Trust? An Experiment With Oxytocin Spray

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What is the issue?

It’s a freakishly cool summer day when I approach a sales clerk at Aldo shoes on lower Broadway. My mission? To return a pair of taupe patent leather pumps. The catch? I didn’t exactly purchase them recently.

“You do realize these are two years old?” says a jean shirt clad brunette. Her wrist, which is adorned with too many keys, tells me she’s the manager.

“The thing is, they’ve really disappointed me,” I say, pointing to their worn soles, the chipped leather on each heel and the re-stitching required by a torn seam.

Of course these flaws are reflective of natural aging, but I’m determined—not to exchange a pair of shoes well past their expiration date, but to test the boundaries of Liquid Trust, the oxytocin laced solution I doused myself in earlier.

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Liquid Trust is an odorless, spray-on potion manufactured by Vero Labs, a Boca Raton, Florida based company. In addition to oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone referred to as the “cuddle chemical” for its affiliation with orgasm and human emotion, the mixture contains purified water and rubbing alcohol. A two-month supply comes in a one-ounce bottle and costs $49.95, which seems like pittance to pay for what its creators claim: that it’s “specially formulated to create a trusting atmosphere” and that wearing it guarantees you will make a “lasting impression.” Dare to click on the “buy now” link on Vero Lab’s website, and a video starring a blonde cartoon woman in a professional setting plays automatically. Tone hypnotic, she promises, “You are only a step away from changing your life,” before explaining that Liquid Trust’s effectiveness is backed by a 100 percent refund policy. Sure enough, corroborating testimonials are listed in bold typeface along the right-hand sidebar. “G from the UK” professes that his bartending tips increased fivefold after he began using the product, and “Joe” credits it for prompting his girlfriend to propose to him.

To the cautious online consumer, all of this might seem ridiculously propagandistic. But more and more scientific research highlights oxytocin’s extraordinary characteristics.

Oxytocin is produced in the brain’s hypothalamus, which regulates emotion. Back in 1906, British pharmacologist Sir Henry Hallett Dale first pinpointed the molecule’s role in sexual reproduction. (It’s released after the uterus contracts, and when a new mother’s nipples are stimulated prior to breast-feeding.) More recently, oxytocin has been found to spike in both men and women during orgasm. The hormone is also believed to play a crucial part in pair bonding, social recognition, and anxiety. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that women whose oxytocin levels increased significantly in response to massage and the recollection of a positive emotional experience reported wellbeing in personal relationships. And in a paper published by Nature, University of Zurich scientists concluded that the hormone promotes social interaction and trust.

The goal for many in understanding oxytocin is to help those afflicted with social phobias, autism or Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leads children to approach strangers indiscriminately. Others are more interested in capitalizing on the chemical’s potentially exploitative applications.

I’m neither a scientist nor a moralist, but as soon as I learned about Liquid Trust, I had to know if the stuff worked. Without telling a soul, I ordered a bottle, intending to spritz myself daily for a week while monitoring its effects on my everyday life and my romantic relationship. If, as Vero Labs alleges, everyone I encounter would “immediately and unconsciously detect” the hormone, what would that translate to in reality? Would close friends trust me with their darkest secrets? Would my boyfriend try to hump me relentlessly? Would strangers stop me on the street to extend impromptu invitations?

If effective, Liquid Trust might be the new age golden key to success in work and love. It also might be dangerous to unleash in a world marred by manipulative politicians and bankers.

As soon as my Vero Labs package arrived, I ripped it open. Inside, I found a miniature translucent spray bottle and a cautionary card. Liquid Trust is for external use only and should not be worn by children or pregnant women, it heeded. Nothing odd, except for a typo in the last sentence: “Do no use near flame.” I would expect better proof reading from a company that hawks a product supposedly formulated through meticulous scientific research. Regardless, I felt enthusiastic.

I sprayed each wrist and dabbed my neck before walking through several squirts, as I would with a perfume. Then, old shoes in hand, I headed out.

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The Aldo employee turns each pump over thoughtfully as I inch closer, hoping proximity to my oxytocin-drenched body will help my case.

“I guess I’ve come to expect more from your merchandise since I’m such a longstanding customer,” I lie. These are the only Aldo shoes I’ve ever purchased, as part of a friend’s bridesmaid mandated uniform.

Finally, a decision: “Here’s what I’ll do. You can have a credit for their current value, which we’ll call $49.99. Go ahead and pick out a new pair,” she advises with a sweep of the hand.

Fifteen minutes later I walk home toting a brand new pair of $80 shoes for which I paid roughly $30.

Feeling confident, I ring a friend who owns a boutique in downtown Manhattan and request to work as shop girl the following day. If I can finagle an outrageous exchange, maybe, on the flip side, I can convince customers to drop dough and boost sales.

Between 11am and 2pm, every customer I approach from behind the register purchases something. On a roll, I reapply around lunchtime.

It’s 3pm when someone first browses without buying. Once the miser departs, I figure I should spray myself a little more. But as the afternoon progresses, I make no further sales.

Did I over-douse?

Three days into my experiment, I meet my boyfriend for dinner at Aurora, a rustic Soho restaurant, wearing a reasonable amount of Liquid Trust. We sit at the bar and order a cheese plate and the veal chop to share. As he feeds me a bit of buttered bread, I rub his thigh. Try as I might, I can’t suppress one thought: I want to have this man’s babies. Baby craziness isn’t a totally foreign emotion to me, but it seems to be monopolizing my mind with increased vigor.

By the time we’re back at my apartment having sex, we’re a bit drunk. Always passionate, this romp is no exception. Is my orgasm more intense than usual, or am I more in tune with my body thanks to hopeful anticipation?

The next morning, I eagerly apply Liquid Trust in secret before my boyfriend wakes up. I’m standing naked in the kitchen making green tea when I sense his approach. Expecting warmth, I’m surprised to see him shake his head with dissatisfaction.

“Just bob the bag up and down five times, then take it out,” he instructs.

“But you’re supposed to let it seep for three minutes!”

“Nope,” he insists before taking over.

The argument is silly, but it annoys me more than it otherwise would. Shouldn’t he trust that I’m right? Watching him sip, though, my frustration melts into forgiveness. I want to have this man’s babies. I’ll make the tea however he likes.

Over the next few days, my experiences are mixed. I want to believe that guys are checking me out more often as I walk down the street, but I can’t deny that hyper awareness could be coloring my impressions. When a middle-aged man sacrifices his seat for me during rush hour on the downtown C train, I’m flattered, but I sense he might be that nice to everybody. With my boyfriend, things are relatively normal: no more bickering, and a healthy amount of sex.

I’m sitting on a bench outside my local coffee shop pondering the societal impact of hormone-based supplements when I decide to ring Dr. Justin R. Garcia, an evolutionary biologist with The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University.

Garcia is familiar with Liquid Trust, but he points out that when oxytocin is experimented with for science, an intra-nasal version is preferred. He also mentions that because the molecular half-life for most hormones is so short, if Liquid Trust even works, it would last a couple hours at most.

“How would you guess the oxytocin is affecting me?”

“Where are you in your menstrual cycle?” Garcia asks.

A quick calendar check tells me week three.

“Because it’s important to keep in mind any changes that might correlate with your ovulatory cycle. Usually emotionality happens right before menses.”

“Before what?”

“Blood flow. So we have to consider that. Hypothetically, since oxytocin promotes bonding behavior, it might make you more affectionate.”

“Like I-must-have-your-babies-nowish, affectionate?”

“Maybe,” Garcie says. “Oxy is also very important during pregnancy. It’s involved in uterine contractions, and some women who experience intense orgasms report feeling as though their uterus contracts during climax.”

Maybe my orgasm the other day was exceptional. “What are the risks?” I ask.

“I don’t see a health risk to oxytocin, but if these hormones are having real effects, there are social implications worth considering. For instance, what happens if it changes your opinions of people? Or their opinions of you? It could ruin relationships just as easily as it might help them.”

“Scary.”

“On the other hand, you might argue that this is just another way of subverting biology, which is an age old tradition. We do it all the time to improve our appearance—and, by extension, our chances at procreating—when we get our hair colored, wear perfume, or groom. Now we’re simply digging deeper into the arsenal of biological possibilities.”

That night, my boyfriend listens intently as I relay the details of my journey and my conversation with Garcia. I’m relieved that he seems equally fascinated and supportive, signifying that he hasn’t yet changed his opinion of me.

Right then, I toss the remainder of my oxytocin potion in the garbage. The thought of altering anyone’s internal chemistry and thereby redirecting their path—or my own—is terrifying. I’d like things to unfold naturally, whatever that means. I’ll continue to get my hair highlighted and to pop a daily multi-vitamin, but I draw the line at sprinkling myself with hormones. TC mark

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