By Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson
Waiting for a concert to begin at our local county fair, we checked out a reptile exhibit that included an animal trainer with a live alligator resting calmly on his lap. As we stroked the gator, one of us asked the trainer why it was so tame. “I pet it daily. If I didn’t, it would quickly be wild again, and wouldn’t allow this,” he explained.
Amazing. Only months earlier we had begun to grasp the power of bonding behaviors (eye contact, smiles, hugs, skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking, contented “mmmm” sounds, and so forth) to create emotional bonds without our having to do anything more. We hadn’t realized that reptiles ever responded similarly, but it turns out crocodiles and even snakes have also been known to cuddle up with affectionate mammals.
How is it that caring touch and hugs can be so potent? Because they speak directly to a primitive part of the brain, entirely bypassing the rational brain. Known as “attachment cues” by psychologists, they are at the very heart of our mammalhood. To survive, mammal infants must bond to their caregivers— at least until they are ready to be weaned.
Not only are these generous behaviors the way we fall in love with our parents and children, they’re also the way we bond(ed) with our tribe mates. Smiling, grooming (hair care, tattooing), eye contact, handshakes, hugs, encouragement, and laughing together strengthened the tribe, ensuring that members shared when times were tough and defended each other when necessary.
These special behaviors work by encouraging the release of neurochemicals (including oxytocin, the bonding hormone), which lower innate defensiveness, making a bond possible. Specifically, oxytocin counters the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone), and soothes an old part of the primitive brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to keep our guard up, unless it is reassured with the right neurochemical signals. Oxytocin also reduces pain (i.e., increases pain thresholds) by triggering the release of endorphins. This increases feelings of wellbeing.
Not surprisingly bonding behaviors, which release oxytocin, are good medicine for easing defensiveness. Consider this dramatic example: Adoptive parents had been struggling for years with a Romanian orphan with reactive attachment disorder. Violent, he put over 1000 holes in his bedroom walls, and as he grew bigger his mother had to hire a body guard. Finally, in his teens, the parents tried daily attachment cues (holding his adult-sized body while sitting on the couch). After three weeks, he finally bonded with them, and soon began to form healthy peer relationships as well. (Listen to his ‘thank you’ speech for an award.)
In rare pair-bonding mammals like us, bonding cues serve yet another function. They’re part of the reason we stay in love (on average) for long enough for both parents to attach to any kids. Honeymoon neurochemistry also plays a role, but it’s somewhat like a booster shot that wears off. In contrast, bonding behaviors can sustain bonds indefinitely.
There are some curious aspects to bonding behaviors. First, they need not occur for long, or be particularly effortful, but they must be genuinely selfless. Second, there’s evidence that the more you use bonding behaviors, the more sensitive your brain becomes to the oxytocin that helps you feel relaxed and loving. Third, the more frequent the behaviors, the stronger and more stable the bond—just as the alligator trainer observed.
Discover the power of bonding behaviors for yourself. The next time you meet someone who seems emotionally needy or frozen, see it as an unspoken request for something you have an unlimited supply of: compassion without strings attached. Smile warmly, be attentive, and hug (if appropriate). Hold an expectation that this “wilted” person can improve his sense of wellbeing and wholeness with a bit of generous nourishment.