Neuroscience of New Fatherhood: Empathy, Bonding, Childcare

Neuroscience of New Fatherhood: Empathy, Bonding, Childcare

  • A father’s ability to empathize and mentalize during pregnancy correlates with later bonding and parenting during infancy.
  • Specific brain areas in expectant fathers affect social information processing, self-awareness, emotion regulation, and cognitive control.

While the role of mothers in child-rearing has historically drawn attention, more recently researchers are examining the impact of fathers on child development. Even before the baby is born, the idea of who they could be takes shape in the mind of expectant parents, to varying degrees shaping the ultimate attachment parents will have once the baby is born, for all parents. In this piece, we will look at recent research on how fathers’ empathic attunement and associated brain connectivity during mid to late pregnancy with the first child correlates with bonding and parenting behavior at 6 months following birth.

For instance, recent research has identified four key aspects of becoming a father (2021): the “trigger moment” when the reality of having a baby lands; an “awareness of responsibility” stage when the implications of becoming a father begin to cohere; a “transition to fatherhood” stage when identity takes a more consistent, formulated shape; and, finally, “emotional conflict”, involving the evolution and processing of competing emotions, desires, thoughts, and expectations.

Similar to how mothers’ psychological health affects children, when fathers are anxious or depressed (2021), it affects emotional availability and parenting capacity. Recent research shows that being in a negative mood generally—a “dysphoric” state of mind—makes mentalizing more effortful and deliberative; that is, it interferes with the ability grasp others’ perspectives, to imagine the mind of the other in terms of inner attitudes and intentions, referred to as “mentalization”, “reflective function” or “theory of mind” (TOM). , Mood impacts empathic connectedness, leading to cooler, more rational empathy (Mangardich et al., 2022)..

Furthermore, impaired mentalization, combined with parental developmental adversity, has been connected with easier transmission of trauma to the child (intergenerational transmission of trauma) via hostile and helpless dysregulated behaviors on the part of the parent (2021). Proper mentalization is important in all relationships, and caregiver mentalization capacity is especially necessary for optimizing child psychosocial development, with profound effects on the developing brain.

The Neuroscience of Bonding and Empathy

Attachment neuroscience research is starting to identify key brain regions involved in relatedness. The mPFC is a critical structure, highly connected with planning, social, and self-regulatory functions. It is key for theory of mind, aids in emotion regulation through dense back-and-forth connections with emotional areas of the brain (the “limbic” system), and is involved with regulation of stress and resilience.

The mPFC is a key part of the brain’s default mode network (DMN) —the brain’s resting or “idle” state, which may be characterized by adaptive, appropriate activity, or may be brainjacked by ruminations and less relevant concerns that interfere with memory and cause dysfunction in the “big three” brain networks: the executive control network, the “CEO” of the brain; the default mode network; and the salience network, tuning how we process perceptual data from inside and outside of ourselves, leading to potential distortions or better alignment with reality. Furthermore, the mPFC is involved with direction and switching cognitive resources, like directing and sustaining attention, shifting focus from one thing to the next, and underpinning motivational systems.

Study authors remark that the lateral occipital cortex (LOC) is important for social thinking, contributing to self-representation, nonverbal and verbal communication, and particularly facial recognition. The LOC is also involved with emotional connection, and is impaired with diminished social function, including autism spectrum conditions and social anxiety disorder. There are many other areas that mediate social and individual function, including the precuneus, involved with self-referential processing; the orbitofrontal cortex, involved with emotion regulation and aggression; and the superior parietal lobe, which contributes to memory and attention as a function of emotional salience.

Paternal Brain Connectivity, Empathy, Bonding and Parenting Quality

Little research has looked at actual paternal brain activity related to mentalization, and how that connects to fathers’ bonding with infants and subsequent caregiving behavior. Research reported in the journal Social Neuroscience (2022) by Marshall and colleagues examined brain connectivity in 40 first-time fathers with a focus on brain areas involved with theory of mind, correlated with measures of empathy, parent-child attachment and parenting behaviors. The first step of the study took place during mid to late pregnancy, and the second 6 months after baby was born.

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