Inside a Father’s brain

“Anyone who tells you fatherhood is the greatest thing that can happen to you, they are understating it.” – Mike Myers

Fatherhood is the most significant event in a man’s life. Up until you have your first kid, you pretty much live your life on your own terms, and the decision and choices you make are centered on what you want. However, from the moment, the air-raid siren wail of a newly born baby booms its way into your life, everything changes. You are responsible for something more and something bigger than yourself , your offspring. It is no longer enough to do well on your own and with almost every decision you make, you need to think about how it will affect your child.

Neural revival

Although a lot of research has focused on how becoming a mother affects a woman’s brain, there has been precious little that has been said on how fatherhood changes a man’s brain. Despite everything stand-up comics say, most of the men do not spend their time thinking of donuts, sleep, and beer when they become dads. Men experience a neural revival of sorts for the benefit of their children. The father and his child establish a biochemical bond with each other that is similar to the one established between a mother and her fetus during pregnancy. For instance, the brains of dads are wired to respond to any threat to their infant, thanks to the release of oxytocin.

In fact, neuroscientists are learning that the brains of fathers and their babies have a symbiotic relation with each other, and each of the parties benefits from the cognitive influence of the other. Men grow new neurons when they become a father. It is nature’s own way of establishing a connection that will pay dividends for the rest of the child’s life. The new dad’s brain also alters its neural activity and hormonal outputs depending on its responsibilities. According to a recently published study, father’s brains switch back and forth from a network that is geared towards better vigilance and social bonding to one that is designed for thinking and planning, changing the output according to the needs of the situation.

Increase in brain volume

A research team at the University of Yale and Denver scanned the brains of new dads. For the first time, structural changes were observed in the brain of men after the birth of their first child. The team found that there was an increase in the grey matter volume in many regions in the brain, including the striatum (plays a critical role in reward processing, among many other functions), hypothalamus (control of hormones), the anterior cingulate cortex (emotional processing), amygdala and the lateral prefrontal cortex (involved in decision making and memory). The prefrontal cortex is one of the areas that shows heightened activity when fathers view their children. What does this increase in volume mean? Animal research has shown that most of these areas are important for attachment and nurturing. The changes might reflect the powerful salience of a baby to his/her father.

More selfless and less anxious

The study also discovered that many regions of the brain shrink during early fatherhood. Regions where there is an observed reduction in the volume of grey matter include the medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus, post-central sulcus, and the inferior parietal cortex. All these regions are considered to be a part of the default mode. These regions are more active when we are switched off from the world around us. Shrinkage in these regions reflects a shift away from the default mode to a more vigilant mode. The orbitofrontal cortex and the left insula also showed a significant reduction, these regions are associated with anxiety and shrinkage that reflects the reduction of fathers’ anxiety over the first few weeks of their children’s lives. Researchers also observed that fathers who engaged in more physical play with their newborn babies had a more pronounced OFC volume reduction.

The researchers plan to take their studies further by combining functional and structural data to get a better idea of the brain changes that can be observed in fathers who have formed a healthy attachment to their offspring. They say that this will enable them to come up with more efficient interventions for parents at-risk. While these studies are exciting and shed new insight into the subject, you cannot expect quick fixes of any sort. No one becomes a great father overnight. It is a process that takes time, energy and a willingness to change.

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