Study: Parenthood seems to rewire gray matter

Research suggests parenthood helps couples tune into each other's minds and emotional states.

When they say parenting changes you, what follows is typically a refrain of ways the wee one will break you. Consider “mommy brain,” the folk psychology theory that says having a baby decays a woman’s mind to flighty, forgetful, scatterbrained mush.

There is some truth to mommy brain—and some truth to the less discussed but no less lethargic daddy brain. It’s not the mushy mind part; that can be chalked up to sleep deprivation and a hectic schedule. Give mommy or daddy the day off and a solid eight hours of sleep, and watch their mental acuity snap back to top shape.

The true part is that parenthood has been shown to alter our brains. Parenthood does this through neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain alters its physical structure through learning and environmental interaction, and neurogenesis, which is the forming of new neurons in certain brain regions.

A 2020 study published in Nature Scientific Reports suggests that these cerebral redesigns may have the ability to make us not only better parents but also better partners.

The science of co-parenting

Researchers led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, wanted to see how the physical presence of a co-parenting spouse affected brain responses. To do this, they brought in “24 mother-father dyads” (read: couples). First, they asked the couples to complete a questionnaire on how often the mother or father took the lead in parenting. They then asked them to listen to infant and adult vocalizations under two conditions, separately in different rooms and together in the same room.

Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, the researchers measured the couples’ brain activity in their prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with planning, emotional regulation, and executive functions.

These scans revealed the couples to be synchronous, meaning their brain activity was similar and in the same areas of the brain. This synchronicity was only found in the together condition and was greater among parents who were younger, had only one child, and shared parenting responsibilities more often.

As a control, the researchers also performed the experiment with randomly matched couples. They showed no synchronous effect in either condition; only true couples mirrored each other’s minds.

These results suggest two effects of co-parenting. First, partners who parent together grow attuned to each other’s emotional state—so much so that the couples’ brains may be pliantly changing to match. Though, the study notes, such a conclusion is beyond the scope of its methodology. Further research would be necessary.

“Our study indicates that when spouses are physically together, there is greater synchrony in their attentional and cognitive control mechanisms when parenting,” Gianluca Esposito, the paper’s senior author and an associate professor at Nanyang, told Yahoo News.

Second, time spent co-parenting helps couples shoulder the mental and emotional difficulties of looking after children.

However, that finding also points to the obverse. That is, parents who spend little time together while co-parenting—whether because of work, separation, or one parent taking on the responsibility wholly—will be less likely to coordinate empathy. As Esposito explains:

“Since the brain response of parents may be shaped by the presence of the spouse, then it is likely that spouses who do not spend much time together while attending their children may find it harder to understand each other’s viewpoint and have reduced ability to coordinate co-parenting responsibilities. This may undermine the quality of parental care in the long run.”

So, it may not take a village, but it’s certainly nice to have someone around who understands your feelings like it’s second nature.

While this study looked at couples’ brains, many others have focused on how individual parent brains are shaped in response to their little bundles of responsibility.

A study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that “mommy brain” doesn’t wither the cerebrum but actually triggers a brainy boom. MRI images of mothers’ brains found increased gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and midbrain.

“We found growth in brain areas … which may be responsible for interacting with your child, finding your baby to be special, planning and monitoring your parenting behavior, and engaging in warm parenting behavior,” Pilyoung Kim, the study’s lead author, told WebMD.

And fathers share in the changes, too. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that fathers’ minds turned on the “parenting network,” mirroring the same neural activation as mothers, an effect that was particularly strong in two-father couples.

So, it’s certainly true that parenting changes you. But when it comes to our brains, those changes appear to be for the better.

This excerpt was reprinted with permission of Big Think, where it was originally published.

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