Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The (chemical) bond between budoka

Once again, I've let this blog get quite lonely over the past several months, sorry. Life has been tumultuous, to say the least. And in the face of all that turmoil, I couldn't help but notice that the people who were the most natural for me to reach out to, the people who in turn genuinely cared the most, were those friends I had made through the dojo.

I've always thought it was interesting how I was always able to make such a close bond with "dojo folk", a bond that I've never really made with coworkers, fellow church members, or even my own family!

I've had a couple of theories over the years, but here's one link I had never considered. I read a few articles recently dealing with "oxytocin", a mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Now, I know, you're thinking, "Isn't that the so-called 'love hormone'? The one they give women to speed up the birthing process?" Yeah, yeah, but wait. Take a minute and read this description carefully:
In humans, oxytocin is thought to be released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both sexes. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and may be involved in the formation of trust between people and generosity.
Now, obviously, while in the practice of aikido or judo or any other form of budo, we're not not exactly hugging or snuggling (and I hope to God no one's having any orgasms...), but if you think about "touching" in general, well, we certainly do a lot of that. We're almost always in physical contact with another human being for much of the class, several times a week. Some of us don't touch our spouses that much!

It turns out, physical touch in general can and will release this subtly potent hormone. You can even release oxytocin by getting cozy with your dog.

When I consider my relationship with many of my dojo friends, the concepts of social recognition, bonding, and the formation of trust and generosity would definitely describe it pretty nicely!

Obviously, if we were being touched in a bad way—in someone were really, honestly trying to inflict serious harm or heaven forbid molested or raped—I seriously doubt any oxytocin is being released. But despite the fact that we are indeed practicing methods of combat, of inflicting harm on another human being, deep down, we don't really mean it. I don't want to hurt my partner. (Okay, sometimes, the occasional jerk walks through the dojo doors and we may be seriously tempted, but otherwise...)

What we're really doing is helping each other learn something. It almost doesn't matter what that something is; it could be ballroom dancing, I would imagine, as long as there's contact. The touching has an underlying motive that's positive, to help someone, and to allow them to help you.

You could even take it a step further. Oxytocin has also been shown to increase trust and reduce fear, as in this example:
In one study... 29 pairs of male college students played an investment game with tokens in which one member of the team acted as an investor and the other as a trustee. Half of the participants inhaled an oxytocin spray and the other half a placebo.

Of the investors who whiffed oxytocin, about half gave all of their tokens to the trustees, and most of the rest handed over the majority of their tokens. By contrast, only a fifth of investors on placebo parted with their tokens, while another third proffered most of theirs.
In another study, "participants who inhaled either oxytocin or a placebo were asked to decide how to split a sum of money with a stranger. Those who received the hormone offered the stranger 80 percent more money than those receiving the placebo."

I continue to find it astonishing how I will trust my dojo-mates enough to throw me on the ground, to lock up my arms and get within a hair's breadth of choking me unconscious. Yet I do, constantly; and they, God help them, trust me in return.

And undoubtedly, should fear be removed from a relationship, then I think every other positive emotion of which humans are even capable will have ample room to flourish.

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