On Vitality

The neuroscience of creating vitality

The Secret Superpowers of Fathers

Learn how neuroscience proves that today's fathers are superheroes!

It seems every year (especially recently), we learn more and more about the effect of fathers. With mothers, the connections are tangible, overt, highly visible, and--in many cases--quite obvious. Fathers, on the other hand, have effects that--while enormous--may seem far less tangible and not nearly as powerful...unless you know where to look. As I wrote in my article on the neuroscience of mothers, children are clearly capable of forming multiple bonds beyond the one primary caretaker.  While the initial connection is primarily with the mother, fathers need to know that they play a vital role in the development and lifelong success of their children. Children with involved fathers have many advantages over children with poor relationships with their fathers. Dads matter.

The feminist revolution has garnered extreme media attention since its birth in the nineteen sixties.  The flip side of that coin has gathered far less attention despite the fact that has been  equally transformational.  As women become more like men and are able to take on traditional male roles (surgeon, military personnel, etc.), men have become more like women. Men, especially the younger ones, are now increasingly expected to pick up traditionally-female roles, such as feeding an infant, changing diapers, driving kids to school, and attending school and after-school activities.  

This lessening of role dichotomy has allowed both sexes to blossom, and the kids are the primary beneficiary. Two is almost always better than one, especially when it comes to such a highly complex task of raising children for which we have almost no education. The societal lack of parental education is a pet peeve of mine, but this is  a digression from today’s topic.  

It’s not just the mother’s brain that goes through seismic shifts once a baby is born. Fathers are transformed by hormones as well, though in very different ways. An Israeli study found a fascinating difference in mother brains and father brains. When watching videos of themselves interacting with their children, mothers showed increased activity in the emotional centers of the brain, while fathers showed increased activity in cognitive functions related to deciphering the child’s sounds. Then things got really interesting: the study also found that the male brains in gay couples showed responses similar to moms and dads. It seems that human brains are hardwired to help us become what children need.

Fathers experience many of the same hormonal responses that we’ve seen in countless studies on mothers. New fathers experience a boost in oxytocin and prolactin, both of which play a huge role in bonding with the infant. It is also interesting to note that new fathers experience a precipitous drop in testosterone; perhaps this is nature’s insurance against ‘wandering’ fathers, but it also serves to increase the male’s ability to engage in nurturing behaviors.

Recent research shows that the stress level of the father at time of conception is passed on, epigenetically, to the child. In recent years, we have learned that we give far more than genetic information to our offspring; we also pass on triggers to activate (or turn off) certain genetic sequences, which in turn affects gene expression. We’ve even discovered that we receive epigenetic information from grandparents and great-grandparents; one study found that people with ancestors who smoked pass on increased chances of asthma for multiple generations. Tracy L. Bale, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and the School of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Animal Biology found that stress on adult male mice induced an epigenetic mark in their sperm that went on to effect their offspring’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a region of the brain that regulates stress responses. Conversely, if the father is not experiencing chronic stress at the time of conception, these damaging epigenetic markers are not activated.

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) recently conducted a study showing that the absence of a father during critical growth periods leads to impaired social and behavioral abilities in adults. But when the father is present and involved, wonderful things happen. Children with involved fathers perform better in school, and this effect is seen throughout the entire academic cycle, including college. Research shows that active participation at the family dinner table is still amongst the best predictors of adult success.  

Fathers also have an enormous impact on children through the quality of their relationship with the mother. A father with a solid, healthy relationship with the mother is more likely to be involved with his children, and the children are then more likely to be psychologically and emotionally stable. I always think of the Berenstain Bears model where the dad holds the mom up so she can hold the kids up. This was the traditional model for generations, and only lately are we seeing a profound shift where fathers are taking active roles as primary caretakers as early as in their child’s infancy. Even so, holding mom up will hopefully remain an important part of a father’s role.

And what is the father’s role? It is certainly expanding. No longer are fathers limited in the role of fatherhood, and this is a very good thing. More and more, we are realizing that fathers can be many things and can manifest fatherhood (and masculinity) in many ways, and men are finding this expanded definition as quite liberating. A father who changes diapers, goes grocery shopping, and makes dinner is no longer the rare exception. As culture and society continue to increase in complexity, kids need all the help they can get--and today’s fathers are delivering that help.

All of the research points to the same thing. While moms get the majority of the limelight, good dads are true superheroes. Their quiet strength makes us all stronger. Join me in wishing a very happy Father’s Day to all the great dads out there.

Gentlemen, you matter far, far more than you may realize. Thank you!

Eva Ritvo, M.D. is vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Miami and co-author of The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful.

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