Neurotransmitters, Worship and Community: Part 2, Oxytocin

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning neurotransmitters part 2 300x211
"Monogamy".Photo by Steve Jurvetson.
CC BY 2.0

Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer!
What you are about to read in this post are generalizations about brain chemistry and its implications for worship. What I am proposing here is hypothetical at best. I am seeking to present well-documented findings the "science" side of this. But so far, we lack the technology to test the release of neurotransmitters in the brains of humans in real time situations of worship in ways that aren't likely to impinge too much on the act of worship itself.

Oxytocin: One with Christ, One with Each Other, and One in Ministry to All the World
So, what gives with the wolves? In Part 1 of this two-part series, there was a diagram of how dopamine functions in various parts of the brain.

The short answer: Copyright. I only post images in the public domain or with Creative Commons or other licensing that gives permission to post them elsewhere with proper attribution. All of the images available on the Internet at this point showing the interactions of oxytocin in the brain are protected by copyright.

So I have wolves.

But in a real way, what these wolves are showing about oxytocin is just as potent, maybe more so, than the brain images. Because what these pair-bonded wolves are showing in this image is one of the primary effects of oxytocin on mammalian brains and bodies: reducing inhibition, enhancing trust, and building lasting communities.

Oxytocin's association with building communities appears to be because of its much longer half-life than dopamine (three to six times longer in the bloodstream) and its substantially longer "lingering effects" on the brain (hours rather than minutes). This gives oxytocin's pro-social "it's all about us" qualities a substantial leg-up to help counteract dopamine's more "it's all about me" tendencies.

That's one of the reasons oxytocin has sometimes been called "the love hormone," or even, "The Moral Molecule."

Another is the significant increase in its release during labor, childbirth and lactation. Oxytocin (or its synthetic form, pitocin) strengthens contractions, enabling childbirth itself, and is widely thought to be responsible for the bonding between mothers and their infant children.

Small amounts of oxytocin are also released through such simple acts of affection as a kiss or petting an animal.

And it appears it may be released in group-bonding experiences such as worship as well. Indeed, one recently published study of megachurch worship and worshipers concluded that "[m]egachurch worship services may be particularly conducive for increasing oxytocin, since they combine group singing with the display of other's emotional experiences in an aesthetic context that encourages emotional expression" (see link, p. 26).

Wellman et all, the authors of that study, primarily cite these three elements-- intensive emotional experiences, large group singing and the presence of cameras able to show individual "transcendent" responses on massive displays so all can see them and thus have their own experiences both encouraged and often amplified-- as the chief contributors to the success of megachurch worship in keeping and expanding its "audience" and in increasing the self-reported feeling of belonging and loyalty among worshipers interviewed.

And those worshipers interviewed consistently reported that worship gave them a strong emotional feeling of being one with God, closer to each other, and more ready to love others around them. Wellman et al. add one more element they say creates the "oxytocin cocktail" they find in megachurch worship: "emotional energy" (p. 4). Group singing and camerawork alone do not generate oxcytocin at sufficient levels to account for the changes felt during worship and confirmed in subsequent interviews. The emotional intensity ("passion" we might say) is just as critical.

But according to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, whose research is frequently cited by Wellman et al, it doesn't require massive assemblies, driving rock beats, charismatic pastors, or high-tech cameras and displays to generate significant increases in oxytocin. Zak notes the following also have similar effects: "share a meal, make music, join a choir, introduce yourself to someone new, express personal thanks, forgive someone, pray for ten minutes 'focusing on compassion.'"

And do these regularly, he adds. Building these activities as basic patterns in our lives, repeated in reliable ways, appears to reinforce the pro-social effects of oxytocin over time, and even, Zak argues, makes us more moral.
Christian worship including Word and Table, confession of sin and sharing the peace of Christ, in any "style," does all of these things.

And so it's no wonder we pray with gusto at the epiclesis, "By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world...."

Limitations of Oxytocin
While oxytocin does promote pro-social behavior and lasting communities, the studies done to date on these effects tend to suggest it does so primarily if not only toward those considered to be part of the "in-group" sharing a common experience. Some studies also suggest that oxytocin may actually increase feelings of hostility toward those perceived to be part of an "out-group" (De Dreu et al, 2010).

In other words, the very hormone that can make group worship experiences powerful for worshipers can also make the very same worship experience potentially dangerous for those who are not part of the group.

To make a thoroughly non-scientific conjecture at this point, perhaps this is part of why the actual presence of the Holy Spirit as both comforter and coach is essential whenever we gather for worship!

Possible Implications for Worship
As noted in the disclaimer above, as well as in the title of this section, what follows here are possible implications and hypotheses.

  1. The basic pattern of Word and Table, however expressed, may be a powerful means of enhancing our sense of community with God, each other, and in ministry with the world. Megachurches may be able to enhance self-reported feelings of cohesion and commitment with big sound and cameras, but that accounts for a little less than 1% of United Methodist congregations in the US. For the 99%, that kind of experience is largely out of reach.Meanwhile, the pattern of Word and Table as expressed in the services of our hymnal and Book of Worship are accessible to congregations of all sizes and technology levels and actually contain many more avenues for worshipers to engage in activities that also enhance oxytocin expression, and so contribute to similar levels of bonding with God, each other and our neighbors.
  2. I suggested our basic ritual may provide all that is needed for most of our congregations. Emotional energy matters. While it is not essential that worshipers dance energetically, sing at the top of their lungs, or offer their worship in immersive media environments, it is essential both theologically and, it seems, to enhance oxytocin release, that we offer our whole selves to God. And that includes our bodies, minds and emotions.
  3. Part of the importance of planning worship and worshiping with our minds as well as our bodies and emotions is to do what we can to counteract the negative consequence of oxytocin released during worship, the very real potential of loving God and each other, but at the expense of others. Contrary to some claims of Zak and others, increasing oxytocin release is no guarantee of increased morality or compassion except to people we define as being "like us" or "with us." Jesus, on the other hand, continues to call us to love enemies, do good to those who harm us and bless those who curse us. For that we need more than brains and bodies recharged with oxytocin. We need hearts and minds reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit. Careful worship planning and wise worship leadership will direct worshipers to acknowledge feelings of hatred for enemies and outsiders that oxytocin released in worship may engender, acknowledge the degree to which we still struggle with "this body of death," and direct us to seek forgiveness and renewal from Christ whose peace truly passes human understanding.