The Science of Love is Helping End a Human Rights Violation

Dr. Larry Young
Dr. Larry Young shares science of love information to help communities eliminate harmful cultural practices.

The Science of Love and Bonding is Improving Relationships and Health, and Bringing an End to a Human Rights Violation in East Africa

Hundreds of millions of females worldwide are still in danger of childhood marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), a cultural procedure that causes extreme physical and psychological harm. Both are internationally recognized as human rights violations*, and FGM has always been counter-intuitive to the science of bonding and developing long-lasting relationships.

Understanding relationships has been a long-term scientific priority for Emory University neuroendocrinologist Larry Young, PhD. When a 2019 email about FGM caught his attention, he knew he had to expand the reach of his scientific discoveries about pair bonding to help end the traumatizing practice. Young, a professor in Emory’s School of Medicine and a Division Chief at the university’s National Primate Research Center, is well-known for his research on the brain chemistry that underlies social bonding, including romantic relationships. He’s frequently featured in the news and has even written a popular book on the subject.

The life-changing email came from Rev. Patti Ricotta, a minister in Massachusetts who leads Life Together International (LTI), a faith-based organization known for uprooting harmful cultural practices to help individuals build meaningful lives and communities grow stronger. Ricotta focuses her work in East Africa among people who still practice FGM. Since 2011, she has been combining Young’s pair bonding research with her theological message on the benefits to women and men of keeping women’s bodies intact. This combination of science and theology is changing the way men and women in East Africa relate to each other, and is bringing an end to FGM, one community at a time.

Ricotta thought Young ought to know this power of his research to change life for thousands of girls and women, and make marriages stronger, so she began writing him about her work in the Sebei region of Eastern Uganda and Kenya, and invited him to join her to educate community leaders about the science of bonding. That email soon led to an ongoing collaboration between the two.

This unexpected alliance represents a surprising result of the broad-ranging aims of Emory’s Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN), which Young leads: to take lab research focused on brain science and apply it to make a difference in people’s lives. The center’s goal is “healing the social brain” — understanding how brain functions promote social interaction and using that understanding to improve mental and physical well-being.

Young’s research focuses primarily on small, monogamous rodents called prairie voles. In this species, males and females form long-lasting pair bonds, and — unlike most nonhuman mammals — both sexes take care of offspring. Studies in Young’s lab have shown oxytocin, a neuropeptide, is largely responsible for regulating neural processes in female and male prairie voles that form and sustain pair bonds between breeding partners.  

Oxytocin, which plays an important part in maternal nurturing, is released during childbirth and breastfeeding. In women and men, oxytocin is also released in the brain in response to pleasurable sexual intimacy, including orgasm. Young also credits the importance of dopamine for establishing and maintaining neural connections. “Dopamine is the chemical signal of pleasure, and your brain combines the oxytocin and dopamine signals, which are important for creating a bond between partners.”

After FMG, that bond can’t be created. The FGM the Sebei people practice is intended to deter women from seeking relationships outside of marriage by preventing them from experiencing pleasure during sex. The procedure of removing the clitoris, labia majora and labia minora usually causes a buildup of scar tissue that actually makes sexual intercourse painful for these women.

When Ricotta recognized this practice, and human rights violation, was likely to diminish women’s ability to form strong emotional bonds with their husbands, she began using Young’s research to teach religious leaders and other men in the Sebei community about the harms of FGM for couples, families and communities.

The collaboration between Ricotta and Young began with a series of educational videos shared during a men’s conference in January 2020. Those videos continue as important teaching tools in the region.

Based on the interest in the topic and willingness for change, Young and Ricotta traveled to Uganda and Kenya in January 2022 to meet with community leaders and give presentations to medical schools, healthcare professionals and Christian and Muslim clergy. A popular Ugandan national television program’s interview with Young helped further the duo’s educational outreach, and another program featuring Young is scheduled to air this Spring on a new health TV station serving all of Uganda.

“I shared the results of my research studies in animals and how those findings relate to humans, but was careful not to impose any values on them or tell anyone what to do. My goal was to share my knowledge about neurochemistry and science, and then allow them to make decisions based on facts.”

In addition to discussing his own research about bonding, Young told audiences about studies in the United States and Europe that have shown the broad health benefits of having these bonds and the health risks that can come when these bonds are broken. This includes increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease, and decreased immune function.

After his talks, many men approached Young to ask how they could form better relationships with their wives who had undergone FGM. Young encouraged the men to connect with their wives via eye contact, gentle touch and compliments, explaining these gestures can also result in the release of oxytocin.

In speaking with members of the public and community leaders, Young also explained the role neurotransmitters play in other relationships, including parent-child bonding. Many cultures in East Africa believe beating their children will make them stronger as adults. “But I explained nurturing children and forming bonds with them allows them to form strong bonds with their partners later in life,” he says. “If children don’t get the effects of oxytocin when they’re young, it can have negative transgenerational effects.” 

Young and Ricotta returned to East Africa in January 2023 to reach teachers, community councilors and clergy and their spouses in four conferences in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The conference attendees immediately expressed how energizing the presentations were, and feedback since has brought a new local meaning to “be fruitful and multiply,” with the emphasis on sharing knowledge throughout the local communities, all toward ending FGM. 

“I always intended for my research to benefit humans and human health, but this is an area I would not have predicted could make such a big difference for thousands of people,” says Young. Something else Young didn’t predict was the impact sharing his research had on his own life. “Seeing firsthand how Emory’s science of love and bonding research is eliminating harmful cultural practices and improving lives and communities has been life-changing for me. I can’t wait to get back to Africa and help even more!” 

*Sources: Save the Children and Unicef