Conversations and the role of Neurochemistry

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor and Learning Specialist, Langara College Counselling Department.


One of the key neurotransmitters of the human brain is oxytocin, commonly known as the “love drug” which facilitates one’s feeling of being connected with others as well as falling in love with another person. Oxytocin is also generated in large amounts in mothers who have given birth, which then creates a powerful bond between child and mother. Of course, there are a variety of other scenarios in which oxytocin can be released such as when one pets a small puppy for example.

More recent research into the role of oxytocin in human behavior has revealed that this particular neurotransmitter is more multi-faceted than has been previously realized. A key element in human interactions where oxytocin is implicated is work (and school) situations where trust is involved – for more see:

The above article which summarizes the most recent research by Paul Zak, discusses how oxytocin is released in large amounts whenever a person develops an implicit trust in their own capabilities in relation to tasks in real world environments (such as the workplace or classroom). Put simply, when one trusts one’s competence to engage in tasks (in the workplace or school), oxytocin is also released in large amounts in one’s neurological system. Oxytocin in turn facilitates the role of various other adaptive neurotransmitters such as serotonin (the sense of serenity, optimism and tranquility), dopamine (the sense of being “rewarded” by the task itself) and endorphins (getting a “high” or “joy” by engaging in the task).

Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser have investigated the role of oxytocin in work environments, especially within evaluation and management situations involving supervisor-employee and colleague-colleague situations. What these researchers have found may be characterized as both notable and remarkable – their findings are summarized in the remainder of the article.

Human Communications: The “Chemistry of Conversations” and C-IQ

There is common knowledge as to what IQ means and in more recent decades there has been an increasing understanding of the importance of “emotional intelligence”, known also as EQ. More recently, scientific studies have led researchers to formulate what is termed as C-IQ or the knowledge of one’s awareness of how our communication style can impact others.

When one receives praise, a vote of confidence or any other type of (genuine) positive sense of feedback, this situation releases oxytocin into our biological system. This then causes the brain to release adaptive neurochemicals (serotonin, dopamine, endorphins) which facilitates access to the pre-frontal cortex, which is the “thinking” part of the neocortex implicated in higher-level cognitive processes such as creativity, problem solving and forward thinking. This translates into adaptive communications with friends, colleagues, classmates, etc. leading to collaboration and mutual trust. When we receive negative feedback, especially with a negative “tone”, this releases cortisol, the “stress hormone”. In contrast to oxytocin which metabolizes relatively quickly, the effects of cortisol linger on considerably longer as this biochemical does not break down easily.

This leads to the phenomenon that can be scientifically characterized as the “Chemistry of Conversations”. This entails the “feel” of the conversation, which is distinguished from the content of that conversation. Put simply when one is providing feedback (or any type of communication) with to a colleague, classmate, friend, partner, etc. is not just a matter of the information you are saying, but also the tone and feel of how you are saying it. In work and school situations, human communication often involves feedback between supervisor-employee, colleague-colleague, instructor-student or student-student.  A remarkable finding by Glaser and Glaser with respect to feedback in these scenarios is that irrespective of whether the person is being “corrected” for a workplace (or school/learning) mistake listeners are highly attuned or sensitive to the “tone” of that communication. For example, a supervisor (or instructor) observes with respect to their employee (or student) an error or a feature that could improve. There are now two levels of communication: (a) content or “What” (factual information) and (b) the “How” of the delivery (the style, manner and “feel” the factual information is delivered). As noted by Glaser and Glaser, the key component with respect to the delivery of content is the feeling of trust that is present (or not present) during the feedback. A “tone of trust” conveyed to the person, even as they have made an error, leads to the release of oxytocin within that person. Thus, when one communicates a sense of trust to person, as they have made an error, allows them to be in an open and receptive state (to the feedback). In contrast when the feedback is delivered with a negative and judgemental tone, the person receiving the feedback experiences an increase of the cortisol hormone. As noted previously, the elevation of cortisol elevates stress, which interferes with the workings of the hippocampus, located in the “emotional brain” or the limbic system. This in turn disrupts the person’s access to their pre-frontal cortex which is required for “higher thinking” processes such as critical thinking, problem-solving creativity and forward thinking. This is why feedback with a negative tone often fails to facilitate the desired result.

Interestingly as noted earlier cortisol takes much longer to metabolize than oxytocin. This is a major reason why feedback with negative affect or “tone” continues to linger in the person. That type of feedback for example can remain in the person’s memory (or recall more specifically) for a longer period of time. However, it is also possible that the person providing the feedback had no intent of conveying a negative tone – and yet, the recipient of that feedback experiences a spike of cortisol (elevation of stress). This can often occur when the person providing the feedback is unaware of their style (or “tone”) of communication. Glaser and Glaser provide an example of “Bob” a senior executive of the Verizon Company whose behavior resulted in his members experiencing illness as well as others requesting that they transfer out of his team. The researchers then observed “Bob” for a number of weeks and noticed the following patterns in his behavior:

  • Would not ask questions from his team to stimulate discussion
  • Not showing concern for others
  • Failing to provide a motivating vision of the entire team achieving success
  • A tendency to “sell” ideas
  • Entry into discussions with a fixed mindset or the attitude of “I am Always Right”
  • Lack of openness to other people’s perspectives
  • Failure to listen to other people’s ideas and perspectives

When the researchers then reported the above behaviors to “Bob” and explained the (scientific-biochemical) impact of his behaviors on his colleagues, a dramatic change (for the better) took place. Apparently “Bob” was not aware that he actually had this of communication and the negative impact this was having upon his colleagues. The new awareness literally transformed “Bob” into a new version of himself. Colleagues working with “New Bob” now experienced less stress (decreased cortisol) and enhanced trust (increase oxytocin). This resulted in higher focus, concentration, creativity and achievements in the team members as a whole. Essentially, access to the higher frontal cortex functions was now being facilitated as the limbic system (or emotional center) was now more balanced and regulated. The transformation was so pronounced that colleagues of “New Bob” were actually wondering if somehow Glaser and Glaser had given him some kind of drink! The (scientific) message is clear: C-IQ is a critical skill as this can affect overall wellness in school, the workplace and the home. Put simply: words DO matter.


Glaser, J.E. & Glaser, R.D. (2019). The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations. Harvard Business Review-Special Edition, 1, pp.62-63.

Zak, P.J. (2019). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review-Special Edition, 1, pp.44-49.

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