Love, Improvisation, and Neuroscience

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I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with the relationship of improvisation and hope. I’ve written some on this topic previously, but it’s worth repeating: improvising is rooted in hope—the idea that what’s to come can be (even) better than what is.

Now I’m learning that this is intimately connected with neuroscience.

I recently read this: “A 2015 study asked four jazz singers to perform two different songs: one improvised, one composed. When the singers improvised, their oxytocin levels increased. The study authors suggest this happened because an improvised performance calls for strong social behaviors such as cooperation, trust, and communication.” Because I’m a jazz musician, this article enthralled me, and it has become one of my favorite studies of the connections between not only improvisation and hope, but the way that improvisation creates love and community.

Hold On—Can I Get a Definition?

Stepping back: what is oxytocin? Although it’s a difficult molecule to study, oxytocin has been called the “love drug.”  It is a hormone that forms and maintains social bonds, including maternal-infant bonding, romantic relationships, and social interactions. It contributes to feelings of trust and empathy. Oxytocin also seems to reduce stress and anxiety and promote well-being. This directly influences our ability to engage in loving experiences and be open to and active in our spiritual lives.

As my colleague, friend, collaborator, and neuroscientist Leonard Matheson, taught me—oxytocin far precedes our emerging as human beings on this planet. It was doing the bonding way before we, Homo sapiens, arrived on the scene. Oxytocin creates bonds through mating and strengthens bonds so that we can survive through community.


  • I worked out some of these ideas on hope and improvisation with my friend Mark Barger Elliott, when he interviewed me for his Festival of Hope.
  • I quote this research article above, “The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin,” and it is worth reading in its entirety.
  • This Scientific American article discusses some of the complexity in studying oxytocin.
  • Sue Carter is one of the leading researchers on oxytocin (and vasopressin). A good read is “Oxytocin and love: myths, metaphors and mysteries.”
  • This brief article, “12 Ways to Boost Oxytocin” isn’t specifically about church ministry, but it’s easy enough to take many of these ideas and bring them into congregational life.
  • In this newsletter, I talked with Leonard Matheson, and we mined some insights from neuroscience for church life.

But What Does This Mean for the Church?

At Science for the Church, we are driven by a particular question, especially when we are fascinated by scientific insights: What does this mean for the church?

Well, a lot and the stakes are high.

As followers of Christ, we must remember that every person we encounter bears God’s image. This David Brooks video reminded me that we discover profound bonds with and compassion for others when we recognize the “infinite value of every human soul.” To that I’ll add the way C.S. Lewis closes his brilliant sermon, “The Weight of Glory”: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.” And Christ told us that in the least, the lost, and the forgotten, we would meet him (Matthew 25:31-46). Those are high stakes indeed.

Have I left science behind at this point? To my mind, this is all grounded in solid scientific discoveries. I started with oxytocin, improvisation, and human bonding. Through this connection, I’m honestly enthralled by how science helps us grasp how God created this universe so that we can form deep relationships with others.

Praxis

And this even leads to Christian practice. Neuroscience has uncovered the simple ways we boost oxytocin. When we hug, oxytocin is released. Other oxytocin pumps are altruistic behaviors, such as giving gifts or practicing random acts of kindness. It’s connected to prosocial behavior that researchers like Pamela Ebstyne King have studied, and which promotes human flourishing.

In a recent class, Len Matheson encouraged us to get to know the names of every server—at your local coffee shop, restaurant, or grocery store. The server then more clearly becomes a person to us, and us to them. We’re not just a “server” and a “customer.” With simple acts such as these, our oxytocin levels begin to rise, bonding us with more of our fellow human beings.

All this is what the church does best and what it teaches us and forms us to do. In that light, it’s good to know how God has created us for these practices. It’s also a way the church can respond to the growing crisis of loneliness in our country—by providing means to create social bonds and thus leaving behind the radical sense of being alone that plagues so many of us.

Am I proclaiming the gospel of oxytocin? Not really. But I am declaring that God has written some good news—via science and Scripture—about how we are created for love.

Greg

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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