Men and women are different. It has been long known that pregnancy and motherhood alter women’s brains. What was so far not clear was what happens to the brains of fathers. Recent research has shown that having children rewires fathers’ brains as well.
Mother’s brains change to adapt to the demands of their babies, that is why most brain changes are observed in the prefrontal cortex and limbic regions. The former is involved in complex functions like what’s known as the “theory of mind”, being able to understand someone else’s thoughts, like a baby’s. The latter is more related to emotional processing. Changes in these regions are highlighted by the fact that seeing images of their babies activates mostly these regions in mothers.
But what about fathers? Do their brains similarly adapt to their new role? Since they do not undergo pregnancy, whatever changes might take place in men are related to their active participation in childrearing. In fact, a joint study 1 between researchers on both sides of the Atlantic, in Spain and the US, have corroborated brain changes in fathers.
They recruited 40 fathers (20 per location) and put them in a brain scanner twice. First, during their partner’s pregnancy and when their babies were 6 months old. To be sure to pick the changes were due to fatherhood, 17 childless men were included as controls.
The results showed that indeed, having children rewires father’s brains. The brain regions showing most changes were those dedicated to visual processing, attention, and empathy towards their child. However, the scale of the changes was much smaller –about half– than that observed in women.
Moreover, the researchers observed differences between fathers in Spain and the US, with Spanish fathers showing bigger changes in attention related areas. Although there is no clear explanation as to why, it might be due to sociocultural differences, including the “better” paternity leave conditions found in many European countries in comparison to the US. On the other hand, it may also be a matter of predisposition, in that men experiencing bigger brain changes would be more hands on than others.
This is a bit like the conundrum –chicken or egg first– but it seems like policies supporting men’s involvement in child-rearing from the very beginning might be beneficial for all actors involved, from fathers to mothers to the rest of society.
More about neuroplasticity: