Mother Love

Director, The Kinsey Institute and Rudy Professor of Biology, Indiana University

As I view “Mother Love”, I imagine an important and complex neurochemical process unfolding. Motherhood is the biological and behavioral prototype for love and attachment. Embedded in the evolved neurobiology of mothering are hormones and neural circuits programmed to physically and emotionally nurture young mammals. The same hormonal pathways that regulate birth and milk production are necessary for maternal behavior. Thus, this young bonobo is both receiving and stimulating nurturance from this mother through the act of sucking, and the act will serve to stimulate the mother/infant bond. At the heart of this process is a small but powerful peptide. Continue Reading

Bonobo-MOTHER LOVE | jessie williams photography


Central to maternity and to love is oxytocin. Oxytocin stimulates the uterine contractions that expel mammalian babies into the world. It helps to create the mother-child bond necessary for growth and survival, and allows for the large brain that characterizes primates. There is now abundant evidence that oxytocin also is necessary for many forms of positive social behavior, including the motivation to engage in eye contact. Oxytocin is implicated in the capacity of adults to form long-lasting relationships and social bonds. Oxytocin also can support a sense of safety. Oxytocin directly helps to regulate the development of the brain, heart, muscles and the autonomic nervous system and restore tissues in the face of injury. Wounds heal more quickly when humans are in a positive social environment but also in individuals with high levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory. Of course, oxytocin alone is not equivalent to love. Oxytocin at high levels may be harmful.

Motherhood epitomizes the concept of love. A complex physiology is necessary for motherhood and underlies the benefits of both love and the molecules of love. Knowledge of the science of motherhood offers a new perspective on the mechanisms through which social support and love protect and heal across the life-span.

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