In 2015 MIT cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Rebecca Saxe took a magnetic resonance image (MRI) of herself kissing her son, the first of its kind in the world. Writing about the experience for Smithsonian Magazine, Dr. Saxe said that she and her collaborators took the image “because we wanted to see it.” This arresting image, the MRI Mother and Child [you can see it at the Smithsonian link above], is both extremely modern, captured with cutting edge technology, and timeless in its imagery.
Now, four years later, a version of the image with red blobs lighting up the brains of both the Mother and Child, has gone viral again. Some posts about the image falsely conclude that the bright colors reflect the biology of the parent-child bond, mainly the release of hormones like oxytocin (the so-called ‘love’ hormone). Recently, Dr. Saxe took to Twitter to set the record straight.
The ‘blobs’ in the image aren’t hormonal at all, but are results from a scientific study on how infant brains process visual information conducted by Dr. Saxe herself. The colors on the image reflect parts of the brain that used more oxygen (in that actual infant and mother) while viewing faces compared to oxygen use in brains viewing natural scenes. In fact, there isn’t yet any way to directly measure the release of oxytocin or its levels in the brains of living humans. The closest we can come is to measure its levels in blood or saliva, or to measure how brain activity changes when we give someone oxytocin. Developing methods to measure oxytocin in human brains is an area of active research, but it will probably be many years until we’ll be able to use them to study infants.