Meghan Lockard graduated St. John's College in 2007, and this weekend returns to campus to present a Homecoming lecture titled "An Evolutionary Perspective on Oxytocin and the Interpersonal Bond" (3:15 pm Saturday Sept. 16. Free. St. John's College, 1160 Camino Cruz Blanca, 984-6000). She discusses her research as a fellow in the labratory of neural circuits and behavior at Rockefeller University in New York City.
This all sounds kind of heady. Can you explain what you'll be talking about, for a layperson?
I'm trying to make the argument that animals, even lower-form animals such as nematodes, have subjective experiences that are qualitatively different from ours, but are akin to what we experience, emotionally.
OK, that's still a lot of big words. What it sounds like to me is: 'Nematodes can make friends.'
I think it's more like, 'Nematodes can get off.'
How does this translate to the study of oxytocin in humans?
We can do things experimentally to nematodes that we can't do to humans, for practical and ethical reasons. Genetics, for example—I can't make a human that doesn't have oxytocin and see what their behavior is like. … Oxytocin is important to our vascular system, so that fetus would be stillborn, and even if that weren't the case, we don't have time to wait around 20 years for a human to reach sexual maturity. Nematodes, on the other hand, reach sexual maturity in three days, and we can make them glow, and we can watch neural activity while they behave, and we can manipulate their neural activity with molecular tools. … One of the things I'm going to talk about is how, in our bodies, oxytocin and dopamine work together to promote a lot of social behavior, and it's the same thing in the worm.
Full Disclosure: Charlotte Jusinski performs freelance consulting at St. John’s College.