We’ve gladly welcomed the “dad-bod” physique into the fatherhood universe, but new research confirms fatherhood gives us dad-brain.
Being a parent comes with its fair share of challenges, but new studies confirm our brains are always adapting. While most are well aware of the hormonal changes that take place in mothers, scientists now point to several changes in dads as well.
According to leading researchers, including Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California-San Francisco and chief scientific officer at Posit Science Corp., our brains are continuously changing depending on our individual circumstances.
“Certainly, one of the most important things that could happen in the life of a man is fatherhood,” Merzenich says. “It’s something that’s very serious and life changing. And of course things that are very serious and life-changing amp up our brains in ways that promote substantial change and remodeling. And a lot of that’s required as we adopt these new sets of complex tasks that relate to being a dad.”
Research suggests increases in oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding, as well as decreases in testosterone, can alter men’s brains to better suit their dadly duties. One study showed an inverse relationship between caregiving and testosterone levels while another showed increased oxytocin in parents over those who were not raising children.
In a separate study using male marmosets, scientists observed major changes in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the area often responsible for planning and decision making, in those who were fathers. While hormonal changes in mothers are immediate, Merzenich says changes in dads can happen at a much different rate. “Fathers grow their attachment to the child on a slower pace than mothers, but it doesn’t take very long before most dads would literally sacrifice their own lives to protect their babies.”
Developmental neuroscientist, Aaron Sathyanesan, says there are many similarities between the way mothers and fathers adapt to parenthood, but some areas are unique to the gender. “While pregnancy hormones activate unique pathways in the brain for mothers, fathers tend to show activation in brain pathways based on experience and learning.”
While the studies shed new light on the “dad-brain”, researchers universally agree more in-depth, long-term studies are needed to fully understand everything at play. For fathers like Merzenich, the proof is as clear as day. “I know I’m a far richer person for it. It’s made me a more complete human being. It’s made me a more generous person.”
So next time you’re feeling challenged as a parent, just remember that your brain is constantly growing and trying to adapt. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean your kids won’t challenge you, it just means that dealing with it may be a little easier each time. As for our dad-bods and receding hairlines, science is still pointing the finger right back at us.