We've long accepted that hormones can make you amorous, aggressive, or erratic. But lately neuroscience has been abuzz with evidence that the hormone oxytocin -- which also acts as a neuromodulator -- can enhance at least one cognitive power: the ability to understand what others are thinking. In this week's Mind Matters (the online blog seminar on mind and brain I edit for Scientific American), Jennifer Bartz and Eric Hollander, two leading researchers in this area, write a review commentary describing a recent paper on oxytocin and "theory of mind" and describe how oxytocin seems to influence both our openness to others and our understanding of them.
The most heavily covered previous oxytocin finding was that an extra dose seemed to make women more trusting -- a report that led to ubiquitous Internet sales pitches of oxytocin as a "date aid." The study reviewed here has the potential for more noble development, since it focuses on the sorts of social understanding and perception that go awry in autism and similar conditions.