Your Brain On Baby: Yes, Having Kids Changes Your Neural Pathways, Under One Condition
Remember that anti-drug commercial from the '80s that went, "This is your brain, and this is your brain on drugs"? Well, a recent study made a somewhat similar comparison: "This is your brain on baby." The most significant finding was this: Having a baby alters a mother's brain, but the same effect occurs in fathers who are the primary caregivers. Looks like gender is surprisingly inconsequential when it comes to how a parent's brain works, according to the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study's main objective was to identify whether a person's brain became hyper-sensitive after becoming a new parent. The researchers' video recorded 89 new moms and dads caring for their infants at home. Then, using an MRI, they examined the parents' brain activity as they watched videos that did not feature their children, followed by the home recordings. The 20 mothers in the study, who were all the primary caregivers in their households, all experienced heightened activity in their brains. The 48 dads in the study who were primary caregivers experienced a similar change in their brain.
The amygdala, a set of neurons in the brain responsible for processing emotions like vigilance and reward, became five times more active in the mothers' brains. With the 48 dads who were also primary caregivers, a similar reaction occurred in the emotional centers of their brain, in addition to the cognitive circuits, which applies to dads in general — whether or not they're the primary caregivers. Cognitive circuits determine more logical needs, like when the baby is hungry or needs a new diaper.
As for the brain's more emotional structures, "These are regions that respond unconsciously to signs of an infants' needs, and that derive deep emotional reward from seeing the baby," Ruth Feldman, the study author and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, told the Huffington Post.
What's even more interesting about these emotional regions of the brain, the study found, is that while changes in the amygdala occur in women because of the hormones associated with pregnancy and childbirth, a man can turn his amygdala on and off. Basically, only when the mother is absent does a male secondary caregiver activate the amygdala to help him navigate parenting.
"Fathers should engage in child care activity because this is their pathway to brain changes and attachment," Feldman wrote in an email to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette . "When mothers are around, fathers' amygdala can rest and mothers do the worrying. When mothers are not around, fathers' brains need to assume this function."
In other words, dads, the more you get involved the more your brain will adapt to reacting emotionally rather than just knowing when to change little Tommy. Providing an emotional bond with your infant child is probably pretty important — plus it gives mom a break to just worry about pumping, or catching up on sleep. Sharing the physical workload is a given, but sharing the emotional workload might get you father of the year.
And yet another impact this study may have is with same-sex couples, who often share the primary caregiver role. According to this study, gay men tap into their amygdala all the time, as they take on the role of both mother and father. This makes them as biologically fit for parenting as heterosexual couples are, which could prompt some big changes in adoption policies in the U.S. — believe it or not, it is still illegal in some states for a same-sex couple to adopt.
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