Menus Subscribe Search

Benefits of the Daddy Brain

• April 16, 2009 • 6:10 PM

New research shows that fatherhood can make you a better man. While men don’t endure the pangs of childbirth, studies show they get some of the same cognitive and physical benefits from their own altered biochemistry, which occurs once the baby arrives.

Ask any new parent: Taking care of a newborn is a physical and emotional marathon — and the pace only begins to slacken with kindergarten. It may not be so surprising that the hormonal surges of pregnancy and childbirth endow mothers with some extra oomph to help them through. Studies have shown that their senses become sharper, and they’re more resilient and more motivated. These changes in the brain take place because many hormones — testosterone, estrogen and prolactin among them — also act in the brain to regulate its functions and help it react to change in the environment.

New research on mice, rats, monkeys and humans shows that, while men don’t endure the pangs of childbirth, they get some of the same cognitive and physical benefits. Loving a woman and fathering her children changes a man’s body and brain in ways that make him more canny and resourceful, while improving his ability to handle stress. At the same time, living with the woman he loves alters a man’s hormones and neurochemistry to make him a better mate.

But to take full advantage of the biochemistry of fatherhood, society may need to change both its parental leave laws and its stereotypes about fathers who nurture.

Craig Kinsley and Kelly Lambert led research into the positive changes in the brains of female rats who were pregnant or recent mothers; their findings were documented in Katherine Ellison‘s 2005 book, The Mommy Brain. Now they’ve turned their attention to daddies and found that rats that father litters also get smarter at finding food and less stressed in new situations.

Lambert, chair of the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College, is using a National Science Foundation grant to study the paternal circuits in the brain of the male California deer mouse. Lambert calls this monogamous and highly paternal creature “Mr. Mom.” Once a male mates, he hangs around the nest whenever he’s not out foraging to feed the family, grooming the babies and keeping a close eye on them.

It makes sense that pregnancy could remodel a female’s brain; Lambert wants to understand what drives similar changes in the male’s. Lambert tests for paternal behavior by placing a baby mouse under a plastic cup and then placing a male in the cage with it. The more paternal a mouse is, the harder he’ll try to rescue the pup. Deer mice that had fathered litters were a lot more persistent than the bachelors.

“We looked at their brains, and there was more activation in the problem-solving areas in the good dads, as if they were more engaged in actively trying to solve the problem of getting the pups out,” Lambert says. Similar changes in a man’s brain could improve job performance (as well as make it easier to set up the Wii).

But these changes aren’t automatic. Lambert has found that simply exposing a male deer mouse to baby mice — even if they’re not his own — is enough to trigger growth in the parts of his brain involved in motivation and problem solving. Lambert’s theory is that there are circuits in the brains of paternal species that are activated by the sight and sounds of wriggly pups.

“There’s some brain circuit there for parental behavior,” Lambert says. “Layers of the brain are activated when they’re drawn or motivated to care for another animal.”

Approximately 3 percent of male mammals provide what’s known as biparental care — that is, both father and mother cooperate in raising offspring. Many go through hormonal changes that seem to facilitate the switch from swinger to clinger. Male marmosets gain weight during their mates’ pregnancy, and 15 percent or more of human males experience symptoms of pregnancy along with their partners in what’s known as couvade.

According to ongoing research on monkeys, Mr. Mom syndrome could be the result of the male brain becoming more sensitive to vasopressin, a neurochemical whose activity is enhanced by testosterone. Vasopressin is important in a male’s bond with his mate, and it also plays a role in alertness and aggression.

“I think of vasopressin as something that promotes the animal being active, brave and investigating things,” says Karen Bales of the University of California, Davis. Bales has found changes in the brains of male titi monkeys after they mate that are similar to those charted by Lambert and Kinsley. Titis are a highly monogamous species, and couples spend most of their days side by side, tails twined together, with their offspring clinging to the male.

Bales has found significant differences in the areas of the titi brain thought to be responsible for motivation, reward and sexual response before and after they mate. She also saw changes in the supraoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that produces vasopressin. Activation of these parts of the brain in titis, as in mice, adds up to increased motivation and better problem solving.

Vasopressin is also a physical tonic. In a recent paper, Bales and her colleague, Michael Jarcho, report that vasopressin mellows out the stress response. In male titi monkeys — and likely in human males, as well — vasopressin is released during sex. So the regular sex that comes with marriage might keep a man from suffering stress-related ills like high blood pressure. At the same time, it helps him power through his daily challenges.

Testosterone is another piece of the puzzle that we could call “the daddy brain.” Peter Gray, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, has been working with an international team of scientists to understand how a man’s neurochemistry changes as he mates and settles down. His studies have found that married men have lower levels of testosterone, the hormone that makes them randy and roaming. Another study of human couples, pre- and postnatal, found that men had higher levels of prolactin and lower levels of sex steroids after the baby was born. Prolactin is known as the hormone of lactation, but it also seems to influence a new father’s responsiveness to his baby’s cries, while dads with lower levels of testosterone are more sympathetic to their babies and more motivated to respond to them.

This hormonal shift also makes it more likely that a father will be around to help out with the kids, Gray posits. When a man is trying to find a mate, testosterone gives him the drive to go after a woman he fancies, as well as to hold his own if he has to compete with others for her attention. But once he’s won her, this same fire would make it harder for him to settle down.

“Mate seeking and parenting are a trade-off,” Gray says.

But these hormone changes don’t necessarily mean that married sex has to be cooler. While the monogamous and highly paternal tamarind monkey shows a drop in testosterone when its mate gives birth, it’s as enthusiastic about sex as ever. Moreover, women can pick out high-testosterone guys just by looking at photos — and they rate them as poor husband material.

The testosterone drop could be triggered by the odor of a man’s children — not the smell of dirty diapers but minute amounts of hormones on the skin or breath of the newborn. When scientists at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center separated marmoset dads from their families and then gave them a whiff of scent from their babies’ genital areas, their testosterone levels dropped within 20 minutes.

Understanding how fatherly nurturing of the young gets triggered should provide some encouragement to new dads who take one look at their squalling bundles of red and say, “Eeou.” Fatherly love may take time to grow. After all, mom’s body and brain have enjoyed a nine-months-long stew of hormones to prepare her for this role, while the overhaul of dad’s brain seems to begin only at the appearance of the child.

As Lambert says, “We may be more predisposed to fathering than some species, but there still is a learning curve.”

To maximize the physical changes that support parenting, the best thing a prospective father can do is take an active role in birth preparations and be physically close to his partner and their child when the baby is born, snuggling close and inhaling that unique baby smell. Research by Jay Fagan, a professor of social work at Temple University, shows that fathers who get involved in pregnancy seem more committed to their partner and the child after it’s born.

But society makes it hard for both parents to share child care, especially in this time of economic turmoil. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides mothers and fathers up to 12 weeks off work to care for a newborn. This is far from a universal benefit, however. The act covers public agencies, schools and companies with more than 50 employees; in 2000, only 42.2 percent of male workers were eligible, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Moreover, the act provides for unpaid leave, making it nearly impossible for dual-income and low-income families to take much time off.

“Men tend to make more money than women do. When push comes to shove, if anybody is going to stay home at all, it’s the person with lower income,” Fagan says.

The evolutionary strategy of co-parental care of offspring increases their chances of survival: One parent forages while the other protects nest, den or cave. Even today, there’s a societal benefit to two-person households. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, children in homes without a father are five times more likely to be poor than those whose fathers live with them; fatherless kids are also more likely to be injured in a serious accident. All told, the National Fatherhood Initiative estimates the annual public costs of U.S. fathers’ absence from their families at $100 billion.

Change may be on the horizon. California, New Jersey and Washington already mandate paid leave, and federal workers recently won four paid FMLA weeks off. Several bills that were working their way through Congress at the end of the Bush administration sought to provide some paid leave, and during his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to expand FMLA coverage while helping fund state programs.

Paid family leave is only part of the prescription for taking full advantage of the Mr. Mom phenomenon. Fagan’s research has shown that to excel in fatherhood, fathers need education in childbirth, newborn care, early child development and the role of the father, starting before birth and lasting into the first three years of the child’s life.

For fathers to reach their potential, sexual stereotypes — the male as breadwinner and the female as sole nurturer — also have to change so stay-at-home dads aren’t seen as unmanly Mr. Moms but virile Super Dads.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

Susan Kuchinskas
Susan Kuchinskas writes about technology, business and health from Berkeley, Calif. She's been a staff writer for AdWeek, Business 2.0, M-Business and InternetNews.com; her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, from Art & Antiques to Wired. New Harbinger will publish her second book, The Chemistry of Connection, in April. She's also an organic gardener and beekeeper.

More From Susan Kuchinskas

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.