Fatherhood in the mind and brain

Both Time and Slate have just run articles on the often neglected field of fatherhood, where they report on the significant brain changes and unique psychological processes linked to male parenthood.

I sometimes think you can’t blame fathers for feeling like they’re unimportant when science has relegated them to a footnote in the parenting process.

This is slowly beginning to change and increasingly research is showing that fatherhood and impending-fatherhood has a unique effect on the mind and brain.

For example, fathers have unique hormonal changes during their partner’s pregnancy and when interacting with their child that significantly affects their brain.

And yet despite these findings, few scientists treat the physiology of fathers as a serious subject in its own right. Researchers have been investigating some of the hormonal swings in humans for almost a decade, and longer in other species; still, most of this work remains on the fringe. Between 2000 and 2006, the journal Hormones and Behavior published nearly three times as many studies of mothers as of fathers, and this year the count so far is 16 to three. A 2000 review framed research into physiological fatherhood as “an opportunity to better understand maternal behavior, by studying parental behavior in the absence of pregnancy and lactation.” Interest in how men’s bodies prepare themselves for fatherhood only seems to matter to the extent it sheds light on mothers. Meanwhile, the ways in which dads screw up their kids is a thriving area of research.

It’s also interesting how stories on fatherhood are presented.

BBC News recently reported on a new study (which I haven’t been able to track down yet, except as a press release) that looked at couvade syndrome – where fathers experience physical symptoms as their partners go through pregnancy.

This is entirely explained in terms of ‘anxiety’ and being ‘attuned’ to their partners.

This is despite the fact that researchers have been arguing for over a decade that the syndrome is equally as influenced by the biological changes brought on by fatherhood.

In contrast, the popular reporting on pregnancy and women is awash with the effects of hormones on behaviour and often ignores the psychological aspect.

In other words, women who experience changes in thinking or behaviour are described if they’re slaves to their hormones whereas symptoms in men are due to anxiety and over-identification.

It’s an interesting twist on how our stereotypes about sex roles and parenting play out in science and popular culture.

The Time and Slate articles attempt to redress the balance by examining research on the role of fathers and how their body and brains react to pregnancy and childcare.

Link to Slate article on what fatherhood does to the body and the brain.
Link to Time on the psychology of fatherhood.

3 thoughts on “Fatherhood in the mind and brain”

  1. Nice post.
    If i were a social neuroscientist this would be my fundamental theme of research.
    Perhaps because i am a fatherless´ child.
    But not only for that, becasue this issue is of fundamental importance in the building of contemporary societies, where there is substancial changes in social networks and family structures.
    Think about the issue of adoptation by homosexual parents and the possible influence in the young.
    Or the reverse, what influence the expresion of father behaviour.

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