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The Neurobiology of Human Bonding


Bartels,  A
Department Physiology of Cognitive Processes, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Max Planck Society;

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Bartels, A. (2007). The Neurobiology of Human Bonding. Talk presented at Sixth International Conference of Neuroesthetics: The Neurobiology of Love. Berkeley, CA, USA.

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Love is a highly rewarding experience that underlies bonding – whether between adult partners or parent and child. It is thus part of a biological mechanism of existential importance for species bearing non-autonomous offspring. My lecture will review – from a biological perspective – evolutionary as well as physiological fundaments of partner selection and bonding (maternal as well as between adults). In particular I will report the results of the fi rst two human functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that reveal neural substrates involved in both romantic and maternal love, and highlight commonalities as well as differences of our results with those obtained in other species. In particular, I hope our research will encourage further studies into the physiological foundations of human bonding, which, in contrast to corresponding research in animals or in human psychology, has faced a curious hesitation until recently. Our studies revealed highly overlapping brain regions between the two types of love. The activated regions are related to the reward system and coincided with areas rich in receptors for the neurohormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which have been shown in animals to be both necessary and suffi cient to induce bonding. The hypothalamus, involved in sexual arousal, was activated only with romantic attachment, and constitutes one of several differentially activated regions with the two types of love. Finally, both studies revealed a common set of de-activated regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment and ‘mentalizing’, that is, the assessment of other people’s intentions and emotions. Human attachment seems thus to employ a push– pull mechanism activated when individuals face a loved one. This overcomes social distance by deactivating networks used for critical social assessment and negative emotions, and while it bonds individuals through the involvement of the reward circuitry, explaining the power of love to motivate and exhilarate.