New research shows that oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone” due to association with social behaviors, may also boost spirituality.

In a study originally published in June, researchers—led by social psychologist Patty Van Cappellen—investigated the link between oxytocin and spirituality. The study involved 83 men between 35 and 64 years old, who were asked to self-report levels of spirituality after a nasal intake of oxytocin. Participants reported a greater sense of spirituality both shortly after the intake and one week later, according to the study.

“Oxytocin is not the spiritual hormone, but oxytocin is part of the biological foundation of spirituality. The takeaway is that spirituality is supported by our biology,” explained Van Cappellen, who is also the associate director of the Interdisciplinary and Behavioral Research Center at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute.

Van Cappellen noted that the research was conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was in the social psychology department before coming to Duke this year.

The study also included a guided meditation session, and participants who took oxytocin reported more positive emotions during meditation, Van Cappellen explained.

Since the 1980s, there has been considerable research that explores the effects of oxytocin on certain social behaviors, such as anxiety reduction and group psychology. However, fewer studies examine the link between oxytocin and spirituality, though previous work has shown a correlation between the two, according to the study.

Van Cappellen’s conclusion lends itself easily to exaggeration, and various media outlets have taken up the task. Because oxytocin is naturally released during sex, there have been headlines declaring that men who have more sex are more likely to believe in God, Van Cappellen said.

“It made me laugh, but it’s a stretch,” Van Cappellen said. “The context of the study is a very controlled lab and not a bedroom.”

Some experts have expressed reservations over the study, especially regarding its claims of causation and its definition of spirituality.

Christina Williams, a Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience, said that she thinks the study does not demonstrate causality. In an email, she wrote that existing research on how oxytocin amplifies social well-being can be translated into the results shown in the study, which is to say that the study does not break new ground.

Harold Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, said that using the term “spirituality” loosely risks conflating it with mental health and social connection. He explained that the measures of spirituality in this study did not distinguish spirituality from positive emotions related to mental health, for example. 

Van Cappellen acknowledged the difficulty in defining spirituality and said that her approach was to look for the common elements that tie together the many definitions. The study defined spirituality as “one’s personal affirmation of and relationship to a higher power or to the sacred,” and makes use of a scientific metric known as the Spirituality Transcendence Scale.

“We try to remain broad, and yet through statistical analysis find the exact [variable] that’s moving,” she said.

Van Cappellen added that she anticipates the next step will be to investigate the other causal direction to see if spiritual activities and behaviors can affect oxytocin levels.

“This does not mean biology was created to support spirituality, or that spirituality is only the result of biology,” she said. “Some people think we’re trying to explain away spirituality, to say that their beliefs are just a result of some biological reaction—that’s not what I claim.”