dad with newborn on chest 1500 x 1000
Photo from Pexels.com under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

A while back, I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR with Paul Raeburn talking about his book, Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked. Here is a smorgasbord of amazing information served in the book:

  • older men having babies can be a cause of autism,
  • men can get morning sickness during the pregnancy,
  • men can get postpartum depression,
  • men’s attitude toward the unborn baby can affect the baby’s personality throughout his life (mechanism unknown),

And, just as in the mother, the expectant’s father oxytocin and prolactin—who knew males even had it—rises and stays up during the newborn’s infancy.

One fascinating bit of data he shared during the interview shines some light on our social attitudes, including us scientists. In his search of the science database, PubMed, for the term “motherhood”, Raeburn found over 200,000 citations, but for fatherhood, about 20,000. That’s a ratio of 10:1. Does that mean the father is not considered as consequential to the baby’s well-being as the mother? I can already hear the cries of protest rising from the aggrieved fathers who view themselves as great dads. Yet, isn’t it curious that all the blurbs singing the book’s praises on the full-page ad in the magazine, Scientific American Mind (July/August, 2014), were written by women?

 

Science actually tell us quite a bit about fatherhood

An article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) by Israeli scientists examined the brains of fathers (not to worry, they used imaging techniques). What they found is quite fascinating. But before we delve into their findings, let’s deal with a methodological issue: How do you control for the presence of a mother in the triangle of baby/father/mother? Whatever you may find occurring in the father’s brain, it would be open to the criticism that “obviously, the mother’s influence is not accounted for.” Well, the ingenious solution was to measure brain oxytocin and parenting behavior in 3 groups: primary caregiving mothers, secondary caregiving fathers, and primary caregiving homosexual fathers raising infants without maternal involvement.

The study revealed that parenting implemented a global “parental caregiving” neural network, by and large, consistent across parents. This “caregiving neural network” integrated the functioning of two systems. The first being the emotional processing network, including subcortical and paralimbic structures associated with vigilance, salience, reward, and motivation. The second network, the “mentalizing” network, (involving frontopolar-medial-prefrontal and temporoparietal circuits) is implicated in social understanding and cognitive empathy.

These networks work in concert to imbue infant care with emotional salience, attune with the infant state, and plan adequate parenting. Primary caregiving mothers showed greater activation in emotion-processing structures, whereas secondary-caregiving fathers displayed greater activation in cortical circuits, associated with oxytocin and parenting. Primary caregiving fathers (these are the homosexual fathers) exhibited high amygdala activation similar to primary caregiving mothers, alongside high activation of superior temporal sulcus (STS) comparable to secondary-caregiving fathers and functional connectivity between amygdala and STS.

What functions does the STS serve? It is involved in the perception of where others are gazing (joint attention) and is, thus, important in determining where others’ emotions are being directed. It is also involved in the perception of biological motion (as opposed to motion of inanimate matter).

In individuals without autism, the superior temporal sulcus also activates when hearing human voices. Among all fathers, time spent in direct childcare was linked with the degree of amygdala-STS connectivity. This dose-response relationship lends a great deal of validity to the finding.

The take home lesson is that fathers’ brains are malleable, and the same neural pathways are activated in infant caregiving as those of mothers.

 

Is parenting good for you?

Most anthropoid primates (humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, gibbons) are slow to develop—their offspring are mostly single births and the inter-birth intervals are long. To maintain a stable population, parents must live long enough to sustain the serial production of a sufficient number of young to replace themselves while allowing for the death of offspring before they can reproduce.

A study published in PNAS looked into this issue. The results confirm what we knew all along: In species where the mother is the primary caregiver, she lives longer than the male. In species in which the males participate at least equally in offspring-rearing, they live as long as the female. What about us?

Human data from the Swedish population from three historical periods indicate a female survival advantage going back to 1780, which are the earliest records available. The female advantage is evident throughout more than two centuries in spite of large differences in mortality rates. Similar female advantages were recorded in the earliest data from England and France in the 19th century, and the female advantage has been present in most countries throughout the world in the 20th century. A female survival advantage has also been found among adults in the Ache, a well-studied hunter-gatherer population living in the forests of eastern Paraguay.

These data strongly suggest that the survival advantage in human females has deep biological roots. Although human fathers have a significant role, human mothers generally bear the greater burden in caring for their offspring.

 

The downside of male parenting

Before you grab the baby from mom’s arms in the vain hope of increasing your lifespan, consider these studies. One study showed that fathers reporting 3 or more hours of daily childcare had lower testosterone at follow-up compared with fathers not involved in care. I know, I know, it makes perfect evolutionary sense.

You don’t (or rather the mother doesn’t) want a horny father to beget (this is a biblical euphemism) a new baby while the present one needs so much care. Still, low testosterone is so…uncool. And, your worst fears of this evolutionary imperative are confirmed in another study titled, Testicular volume is inversely correlated with nurturing-related brain activity in human fathers. Enough said. Your testicles are going to shrink when you take care of your baby. Is the prospect of longer longevity (however remote) worth the cost of low T and shrunken testicles?

Well, don’t worry my fellow fathers, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. The jewels regain their previous volume once the child-rearing period is over. And you are back to the races.

Happy Father’s Day!


This post was originally published Father’s Day, 2015, revised and republished Father’s Day 2017 and republished again for Father’s Day 2018. Enjoy!

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

30 COMMENTS

  1. I think that libido rate during the first phase of parenting is very individual. I have no children yet, but I personally know a couple whose libido only increased after the birth of their child:)

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.