Photo by Daniel Genesee via flickr creative commons
In a study by Bar-Ilan University, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was discovered that men had higher levels of oxytocin—also known as the “trust hormone” or the “love molecule”—after interacting with their babies. Oxytocin is a hormone closely associated with nurturing, affectionate and trusting behavior.
For the study, there were two groups of first-time parents—one, that of heterosexual couples wherein the mother was the primary caregiver, and another, of male homosexual couples wherein both have equal caregiving responsibilities.
The researchers visited each of the couples and videotaped them taking care of their babies. Before and after each session, they took samples of the parents’ saliva in order to measure their oxytocin levels.
A week after, each of the couples were made to watch the videos of them taking care of their baby. This was followed by them undergoing magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) scans in order for the researchers to examine their brain activity patterns, particularly those connected to parental caregiving behavior.
During child care, all participants displayed the activation of what is called the “parenting network”, which involves two connected but separate pathways in the brain.
One system, referred to as the “emotional processing circuit”, is primarily responsible for the emotional significance attributed to experience, motivation and reward. This includes the amygdala, insula and nucleus accumbens.
The other system, a more experience-dependent network, includes the superior temporal sulcus, and is more into feelings of learning, empathy and understanding of social cues.
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The researchers found that the emotional processing circuit was activated in the women after watching the videos of them looking after their babies. The brains of their husbands, however, showed more activity when it came to the experience-dependent part of parent-child interaction.
This shows that women are naturally wired to be more nurturing, affectionate and caring, but men can develop their caregiving skills through behavior and communicating with their babies and learning from their cues. The more time the men spent interacting with their baby, the higher the activation of their emotional processing circuits.
The homosexual couples, on the other hand, told a totally different story. Since each of them is a primary caregiver, they both exhibited the nurturing qualities typical of a mother. Both of their emotional processing and experience-dependent circuits were greatly activated, developed with constant care of their offspring.
Lead researcher Ruth Feldman, a psychologist and neuroscientist, says that the study’s findings reveal how with the absence of a female caregiver, men’s brains can become rewired, similar to the effect pregnancy and childbirth has on a woman.
Sexual orientation, by no means, Feldman adds, has an influence on the caregiving differences. While more research is needed to define any supposed differences among people’s caregiving capacities, “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.”
Sources: latimes.com, news.sciencemag.org, iflscience.com