For many parents, when their first child is born, it’s the first time in their lives that their number one priority shifts from themselves to another person. And this little person happens to be extremely cute, but also hopelessly vulnerable and needy. It’s a profound change that requires a monumental shift in perspective.
Thankfully, as parents we seem to have evolved to anticipate and adapt to our new responsibilities at a neural level. In 2017, a team of neuroscientists at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona scanned the brains of pregnant women during and after pregnancy and found reductions in the amount of grey matter in areas of the brain that are involved in so-called ‘social cognition’ – that is, taking the perspective and thinking of the needs of another person.
A reduction in grey matter might sound like a negative, but it’s actually a sign of increased brain efficiency. This is because suboptimal connections between neurons are pruned back (a similar process happens during adolescent brain development). Moreover, the greater the grey matter shrinkage, the more signs of healthy attachment the mothers showed.
It’s not just new mums who experience brain changes. In 2014 a research group at Emory University found that when fathers looked at pictures of their young children, their brains showed heightened activity in regions associated with empathy and reward, as compared with non-fathers. The change seemed to be related to hormonal shifts – on average, the dads had lower levels of testosterone and higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone that’s involved in social emotions.
Bottom line: if you’ve ever seen a parent laughing and cooing with their snotty bundle of joy and wondered how they can see any appeal, remember their outlook has been helped along by some rather useful brain tweaks.
Asked by: Ellis Smith
- Are we closer genetically to our parents or our siblings?
- Why do some mother mammals reject their own babies?
- Will it ever be possible for a same-sex couple to have a biological baby together?
- What are three-parent babies?
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