• 07.01.10

Inside the Penenberg Brain — An Oxytocin Experiment

The author watched a heartbreaking video, played a game that tested his generosity, and tweeted randomly, while Dr. Love measured his chemical reactions. Here are the results.

Inside the Penenberg Brain — An Oxytocin Experiment

The Empathetic Viewer

Says Paul Zak: “This shows strong activation in brain areas associated with empathy and distress [blobs on both sides]. Adam was engaged emotionally by the dying child but was also made uncomfortable by it.”


Experiment No. 1: The View From the Side

The top row of this series of scans shows (in yellow highlights) that the empathic area of Penenberg’s brain was stimulated by the video of the boy with cancer. “You have a heart!” Zak declares.

The Generous Giver

After watching the video, Penenberg played a game in which he had to consider how much money to give to an unknown second player, who might accept or reject his offer. The oxytocin generated by the video stirred up those areas of his brain associated with generosity, and he gave away 33% more than a person without oxytocin.

Do Tweets = Love?

In the third experiment, the author’s blood was measured as he tweeted for 10 minutes. The results? Cuddle hormones up, stress indicators down.

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books.