Study: Fathers’ Brains Flexible Enough to Perform Two Parental Roles

July 27, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The more we learn about the biological connections of fathers to children, the more profound we realize them to be and the more we realize the foolishness of separating fathers from their kids. Here’s an article reporting on another study of fathers’ brain functions when they’re raising children (New Republic, 7/25/14). Unsurprisingly, they’re much like mothers’ brain functions when they’re raising children.

Unlike most mammals, humans are a bi-parental species; both parents take a hand in childcare. And parenting — whoever does it — is a function of biochemistry. Among mammals that aren’t bi-parental, the parent that doesn’t care for children has a different hormonal makeup than the caregiver. Parental mammals produce hormones like oxytocin, cortisol and prolactin for a very specific reason — to get them to care for their young.

Humans, like many mammals are born very immature, far too much so for our offspring to care for themselves. Indeed, our children require over 10 years before they reach sexual maturity and long periods of socialization in order to become members of social groups. All of that presents enormous problems for adult mammals of most species. Offspring are necessary to the survival of the species, but are a drag on the resources of the group. They eat but don’t get food. They’re small, weak and slow, and therefore attract predators. Lactating females require up to three times the caloric intake of other females.

So logically, adult mammals should simply ignore their offspring who for long periods of time are all take and no give. Needless to say though, that’s not a plan for the survival of the species that holds much promise of success. How to get adults to care for offspring when it’s clearly not in their interest to do so?

Enter those parental hormones that cause parenting, caregiving, nurturing, and protective behavior in adults. Without those hormones, none of the complex social life that’s so typical of mammals would exist. In order for us to be who we are, chimpanzees to be who they are, voles to be who they are, etc., those hormones have to exist and be stimulated in adults.

And, among non-human mammals, the difference between those with the hormones, usually females, and those without is too striking not to notice. After all, male African lions kill cubs if they can and females protect them to their last breath if necessary. That’s imminently reasonable for the males (again, those cubs are detrimental in every way to the well-being of existing adults) and they behave that way because they don’t have the hormones the females do.

In laboratories, scientists have injected non-expectant mice with oxytocin, cortisol and prolactin and both males and females began acting like mice pairs in which the female is pregnant, i.e. preparing for young.

So the very fact that humans are a bi-parental species means adults — both men and women – come with the hormonal capability that causes parental behavior toward immature humans. It is no surprise that, as the linked-to article says, our brains are malleable enough to respond to the parenting challenge when it arises. Moreover, our brains are also malleable enough to exchange one role (primary parent) for another role (secondary parent), and vice versa, with ease.

[R]esearchers recently published a study showing that a father’s brain will change its hormonal outputs and neural activity depending on his parenting duties. The conclusion of the research is, in essence, that men make good parents, too. Surely this is not news…

The biggest enemy of progress has been the natural world, or at least our view of it. Females are the primary caregivers in 95 percent of mammal species. That is mainly because of lactation. Infants are nourished by their mothers’ milk, so it makes sense for most early caring to be done by females.

Human beings, however, have developed more sophisticated means of nourishing and raising our offspring. Should the circumstances require a different set-up, we have ways to cope. It turns out that this is not just in terms of formula milk, nannies or day care: We also have a flexible brain.

The new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scanned the brains of parents while they watched videos of their interactions with their children. The researchers found that this stimulated activity in two systems of the brain. One is an emotional network that deals with social bonding, ensures vigilance and coordinates responses to distress, providing chemical rewards for behaviours that maintain the child’s well-being. The other network is concerned with mental processing. It monitors the child’s likely state of mind, emotional condition, and future needs, allowing for planning.

In mothers who are the primary caregivers, the emotional system was most active. Fathers who are secondary to a female caregiver were more engaged as thinkers and planners. But men raising a child without a female partner were found to have the same level of emotional response as a mother and the same thinking and planning response as the secondary father. In other words, they are able to perform both roles.

What’s more, for men in both primary and secondary roles, the relative size of the emotional and thinking responses varied according to how much time they spend looking after the child. To give the child the best care, the brain changes its output depending on circumstances.

Neuroscience tells us that children who are raised by two fathers experience the same caregiving environment as those raised by a mother and a father. Similar studies still need to be conducted on single mothers, non-parents raising children and dual-mother parents but the likelihood is that they, too, will display similar plasticity.

Oregon State University’s Sarina Saturn writes that this will one day be regarded as a landmark study. That is a little depressing — we shouldn’t need scientific research to tell us this. Yet she is right. It will help dispel prejudice, just as the discovery of homosexual activity among animals helped to dispel the myth that this is somehow unnatural. We now know that the brain “is flexible enough to keep up with the times”, as Saturn puts it. Hurrah. Sometimes science needs to state the bleeding obvious. 

I’m glad Saturn and the writer of this article, Michael Brooks, believe this study “will help dispel prejudice,” and doubtless it will — eventually. But 50 years of social science on the value of fathers to children hasn’t yet done the trick. Oh, it’s chipped away at the huge granite edifice of anti-father/pro-mother bias, but the thing is still standing. Indeed, some days, we can scarcely see the marks the chisel has left.

I’ve argued for years now that we must educate judges in the science related to child well-being, but to no avail. Yes, those very judges who don’t know the first thing about what parenting arrangements actually promote healthy outcomes for children routinely say they’re acting in “the best interests of children.” But the sad fact is they don’t know what they’re talking about much of the time. And the idea that they should have basic information about what is surely their most important job duty is met everywhere with a mildly irritated yawn.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. Everywhere we look, science is proving our anti-father prejudices to be both wrong and destructive to everyone involved – children, fathers, mothers and society generally. And the more science, the harder it will be to justify marginalizing fathers in children’s lives. I’m confident that someday we’ll look back on the times we live in with astonishment at how we could have been so blind, so self-destructive, so biased as to deny to children their natural, healthy relationships with one of the two most important people in their lives. The question is “When?”

Speaking of science, I’d like to know something about the brain chemistry of infants as they form attachments to their parents. We know that’s a fundamental process that begins as early as the first weeks of life. But to date, I don’t have any information about just what happens and how. If anyone can help with that, I’d certainly appreciate the education.


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#fathersconnectiontochildren, #parenting, #hormone

One reply on “Study: Fathers’ Brains Flexible Enough to Perform Two Parental Roles”

I am glad that the study was done for those who doubt but I hope that a study will not be needed to prove that father’s hands can indeed be used not only to fixing things but to gently holding his child as well.

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