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We now have striking evidence that the experience of caregiving changes the brain, and not only the act of becoming a mother. In a 2014 study in Israel, researchers led by Dr. Ruth Feldman studied two types of couples: heterosexual couples, in which both parents shared caregiving responsibilities, and two-father couples, who had had their children with the help of surrogate mothers. The study involved home visits of the couples, as well as samples of saliva to measure oxytocin levels, known as the “trust hormone.”

What the researchers found was significant: all of the caregivers showed the activation of what researchers called a “caregiving network” in the brain. The mothers’ activation showed more strongly in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, whereas the heterosexual fathers showed more in the areas dependent on experience.

This difference, Feldman suggests, could mean that there are gender differences, in that the mothers’ caregiving was more “hard-wired,” whereas the fathers’ needed time to develop. This pattern is often how we stereotypically think about new parents: the mother as immediately “falling in love,” and the father coming to that love over time.

Caregiving makes the difference

However, the brains of the two-father couples showed changes that mirrored those of the mothers: that is, stronger activation in the amygdala. This suggests that it isn’t only pregnancy and childbirth that prompts the brain to rewire, but actually the day-in, day-out experience of caregiving. The small, daily interactions we have with children, this study suggests, are actually shaping the ways our brains respond. Even for the heterosexual fathers, the amount of amygdala activation was proportional to how much time they spent with their babies.

We already know that the first three years of a child’s life are hugely important to their development. These sorts of studies are adding another layer, suggesting that those years are also important to our development, as parents and caregivers. Those years can change us, and not only at the levels of our brains. We can take that time, not only to care for children, but also to develop ourselves.

As Kevin Pelphrey, a neuroscientist at Yale, argues, “It’s clear that we’re all born with the circuitry to help us be sensitive caregivers, and the network can be turned up through parenting.”

Parenting, this study and others suggest, can actually rewire us. Through the act of caregiving, we can become more sensitive, and more empathetic, in a cycle that benefits both us and our kids. Being reflective about our parenting, and recognizing that it can change us—in our behaviors, and at the very level of our brains—is an important start.

References:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/05/parenting-rewires-male-brain