Parenting rewires fathers’ brains

It seems that very specific structural changes take place in the brains of fathers and their young children when they interact with each other.

A recent article in Scientific American – The Brains of Our Fathers: Does Parenting Rewire Dads? – describes research on mice and rats that shows how close interactions between fathers and newborns produces significant neurological changes in both individuals. New neurons and neural connections are created when the fathers care for and play with their offspring. These new structures encode the relationship and help to give the bonding permanence.

All of our thoughts, including our perceptions and memories, both conscious and unconscious, are the result of activity in our brain cells and their billions of connections. We form new cells and new connections to encode new thoughts and memories, making those experiences available to us at a later time. The researchers found these changes took place in certain areas of the brains of rat fathers and offspring, but only if the pair were allowed contact with each other. Degu rats were used in this research because Degu fathers usually play an active role in the early care of their pups.

It would be less surprising if the brains of mother rats and their offspring underwent similar changes. Mothers and pups experience the intimate relationships of gestation and lactation, with their associated hormonal changes. What is interesting about the reported studies, is that these neural changes also take place in the brains of father rats and their offspring. The studies provide further examples of the intimate and ongoing ways in which the external world shapes the structure of our brains.

However, the article then goes on in a way that I think is less helpful. The latter part of the article speculatively links absent human fathers, neurological deficits and later behavioural problems in the offspring. This linkage has prompted a lively debate on the Scientific American website about the effects of absent human fathers and the relative importance of biological and social factors in developing problems such as delinquency and addiction.

To me it is a dangerous oversimplification to extrapolate from these Degu rat studies to say that the absence of a human father necessarily leads to neurological deficits, which in turn will lead to delinquency. Both stages of that argument are open to serious challenge.

For example, the neurological deficits seen in these studies may not have been the direct result of the absence of a father rat. Instead they could have been caused indirectly by the extra strain placed upon the mother by not having a partner to share in parenting duties. However, support for human mothers can come from a range of sources other than a father, for example, from a non-father partner or from an extended network of family or friends.

The article drastically simplifies any possible causal links between early neurological deficits and later delinquency. Many biological, psychological and social factors affect our journey from birth through to adulthood. The danger of this article is to imply a form of biological determinism; that the absence of a father tends to create an early and long-lasting, neurological abnormality that contributes to later delinquency.

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