Parenting a small child requires the forethought of a crisis planner, the reflexes of a professional goalkeeper, the energy of a cheerleader and the empathy of a therapist.
After eons of practice at such caregiving, it’s clear that mothers have evolved some brawn in those parts of the brain that weave together these many skills, and that practice strengthens them. But fathers can clearly develop the same cognitive and emotional muscle, and a new study finds that the more he cares for his offspring, the more a father’s brain looks and behaves like that of a mother engaged in the everyday care of a child.
In fact, say the Israeli authors of the study, the very practice of caregiving, whether by a mom who is her child’s primary caregiver, a dad who steps in to help or a gay father raising a child with no woman in the picture, activates a recognizable “parental caregiving’ neural network.”
Their research was published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers said they may be the first to take advantage of an unprecedented cultural shift. Changing cultural mores have given modern men a larger role in the care of their offspring, and in instances of gay male couples who have chosen to raise children together, at least one of the men takes on the role of primary caregiver and no mother figure is present at all.
In a series of experiments, the researchers, led by Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University, visited and videotaped 89 first-time parents as they interacted with their babies. They took measurements of the parents’ levels of oxytocin, a hormone that mediates behavior related to nurturing, trust and affection. And later they scanned the brains of the parents as they watched video of themselves with their babies, and of other parents interacting with their own children. The aim of the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was to discern patterns of brain activation associated with parental caregiving.
In this study, researcher found that a woman’s oxytocin levels were a good predictor of activation of her brain’s emotional processing centers — and of affectionate behavior. But in men, higher oxytocin levels predicted more activation in the brain’s centers of social cognition and were associated with better parent-child synchrony.