A person’s favorite brands activate two brain regions that are critical for interpersonal relations, a team of researchers in Japan has found1. This provides further support for the theory that people form powerful attachments to objects in a similar way as they do to people.

Attachment theory is a psychological explanation of how an infant develops emotional bonds with its primary caregiver. Some psychologists have suggested that it can be extended to describe how children can become strongly attached to objects such as a favorite soft toy.

“Such objects are thought to reduce the anxiety a child feels when their mother isn’t physically present,” says Yoshiaki Kikuchi, a neuroscientist at Tokyo Metropolitan University and the lead researcher on the project. “The same phenomenon can be seen in adults. For example, a watch that belonged to a beloved grandfather can provide a sense of security.”

Some researchers have speculated that this human-like attachment to objects could carry over to the way people relate to their favorite brands.

Now, Kikuchi and his wife Madoka Noriuchi, also at Tokyo Metropolitan University, together with three collaborators from the Japanese cosmetic company Shiseido, have found strong experimental support for this conjecture using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Their work was recently reported in Scientific Reports.

Two brain regions that are important for developing close interpersonal relationships, the ventral pallidum (VP) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), have been shown to be activated by favorite brands, and the VP effectively connected to the PCC. Credit: Modified from Ref. 1 and licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) © 2021 Y. Kikuchi et al.

“Surprisingly, our functional brain imaging results reveal that the neural mechanisms of attachment to objects are very similar to those that exist in relationships between humans,” Kikuchi says. “We usually consider the relationship between people and objects as being a functional one, but these results point to more of an emotional relationship.”

Kikuchi and Noriuchi performed an fMRI analysis of 20 women who regularly used one of three brands of face cream. When a subject was shown her preferred brand, two regions of her brain lit up: the left ventral pallidum and the right posterior cingulate cortex. The left ventral pallidum is part of the brain’s reward system, which uses neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin to reinforce connections between neurons, and hence behaviors, when a person experiences pleasure. The right posterior cingulate cortex is involved in self-referential processing including autobiographical memory. The two regions are critical for relationships between people. Specifically, the ventral pallidum has been shown to play an important role in both maternal2,3 and romantic love4, while the posterior cingulate cortex is associated with a sense of self.

“When these two areas are strongly connected, there is a strong feeling of attachment,” Kikuchi says. “Importantly, non-preferred face-cream brands didn’t activate these regions.”

Kikuchi and Noriuchi anticipate that these findings will apply beyond cosmetic brands. “We picked cosmetics in this study, but we think the results reveal an important mechanism that exists in the relationships between people and various other things,” Kikuchi says. “They could also have implications for treating people who have hoarding or compulsive buying disorders.”

The pair intends to explore further the neural mechanisms behind attachment – whether to people or objects. In particular, they want to examine the effects of the nurturing environment during childhood.

To read more about the research, explore the paper in Scientific Reports.

Yoshiaki Kikuchi is a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and he specializes in cognitive and emotional neuroscience. He is especially interested in the neural basis of love, human and object attachment, nostalgia, beauty and humanity.

Madoka Noriuchi is a visiting researcher at Tokyo Metropolitan University and she specializes in developmental cognitive neuroscience. Her research interests include the brain mechanism of mother–infant relationship, love, attachment and child development.


  1. Kikuchi, Y., Noriuchi, M., Isobe, H., Shirato, M. & Hirao, N. Neural correlates of product attachment to cosmetics. Scientific Reports 11, 24267 (2021).
  2. Noriuchi, M., Kikuchi, Y. & Senoo, A. The functional neuroanatomy of maternal love: mother’s response to infant’s attachment behaviors. Biological Psychiatry 63, 415–423 (2008).
  3. Noriuchi, M., Kikuchi, Y., Mori, K. & Kamio, Y. The orbitofrontal cortex modulates parenting stress in the maternal brain. Scientific Reports 9, 1658 (2019).
  4. Kikuchi, Y. & Noriuchi, M. The romantic brain: Secure attachment activates the brainstem centers of well-being. In Emotional Engineering Vol. 8 (ed. Fukuda, S.) 135–147 (Springer, 2020).