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Attachment

Neuroscience of New Fatherhood: Empathy, Bonding, Childcare

Novel research looks at resting state brain activity and parenting outcomes.

Key points

  • Early fatherhood is a critical period that sets the stage for bonding and future parenting.
  • A father's ability to empathize and mentalize during pregnancy correlates with later bonding and parenting during infancy.
  • Specific brain areas in expectant fathers affect social information processing, self-awareness, emotion regulation, and cognitive control.
  • Fathers' capacity to mentalize is key for supporting good bonding and effective parenting.

While the role of mothers in child-rearing has historically drawn attention, more recently researchers are examining the impact of fathers on child development. Even before the baby is born, the idea of who they could be takes shape in the mind of expectant parents, to varying degrees shaping the ultimate attachment parents will have once the baby is born, for all parents. In this piece, we will look at recent research on how fathers' empathic attunement and associated brain connectivity during mid to late pregnancy with the first child correlates with bonding and parenting behavior at 6 months following birth.

Recent research has identified four key aspects of becoming a father (2021): the “trigger moment” when the reality of having a baby lands; an “awareness of responsibility” stage when the implications of becoming a father begin to cohere; a “transition to fatherhood” stage when identity takes a more consistent, formulated shape; and, finally, “emotional conflict”, involving the evolution and processing of competing emotions, desires, thoughts, and expectations.

Similar to how mothers' psychological health affects children, when fathers are anxious or depressed (2021), it affects emotional availability and parenting capacity. Recent research shows that being in a negative mood generally—a “dysphoric” state of mind—makes mentalizing more effortful and deliberative; that is, it interferes with the ability grasp others' perspectives, to imagine the mind of the other in terms of inner attitudes and intentions, referred to as “mentalization”, “reflective function” or “theory of mind” (TOM). Mood impacts empathic connectedness, leading to cooler, more rational empathy (Mangardich et al., 2022)..

Furthermore, impaired mentalization, combined with parental developmental adversity, has been connected with easier transmission of trauma to the child (intergenerational transmission of trauma) via hostile and helpless dysregulated behaviors on the part of the parent (2021). Proper mentalization is important in all relationships, and caregiver mentalization capacity is especially necessary for optimizing child psychosocial development, with profound effects on the developing brain.

The Neuroscience of Bonding and Empathy

Attachment neuroscience research is starting to identify key brain regions involved in relatedness. The mPFC is a critical structure, highly connected with planning, social, and self-regulatory functions. It is key for theory of mind, aids in emotion regulation through dense back-and-forth connections with emotional areas of the brain (the “limbic” system), and is involved with regulation of stress and resilience.

The mPFC is a key part of the brain’s default mode network (DMN) —the brain’s resting or “idle” state, which may be characterized by adaptive, appropriate activity, or may be brainjacked by ruminations and less relevant concerns that interfere with memory and cause dysfunction in the "big three" brain networks: the executive control network, the "CEO" of the brain; the default mode network; and the salience network, tuning how we process perceptual data from inside and outside of ourselves, leading to potential distortions or better alignment with reality. Furthermore, the mPFC is involved with direction and switching cognitive resources, like directing and sustaining attention, shifting focus from one thing to the next, and underpinning motivational systems.

Study authors remark that the lateral occipital cortex (LOC) is important for social thinking, contributing to self-representation, nonverbal and verbal communication, and particularly facial recognition. The LOC is also involved with emotional connection, and is impaired with diminished social function, including autism spectrum conditions and social anxiety disorder. There are many other areas that mediate social and individual function, including the precuneus, involved with self-referential processing; the orbitofrontal cortex, involved with emotion regulation and aggression; and the superior parietal lobe, which contributes to memory and attention as a function of emotional salience.

Paternal Brain Connectivity, Empathy, Bonding and Parenting Quality

Little research has looked at actual paternal brain activity related to mentalization, and how that connects to fathers’ bonding with infants and subsequent caregiving behavior. Research reported in the journal Social Neuroscience (2022) by Marshall and colleagues examined brain connectivity in 40 first-time fathers with a focus on brain areas involved with theory of mind, correlated with measures of empathy, parent-child attachment and parenting behaviors. The first step of the study took place during mid to late pregnancy, and the second 6 months after baby was born.

In this study, researchers looked at “resting state functional connectivity” (RSFC), a way of gauging the activity of the brain when individuals are not engaged in any particular goal-directed activity. The brain spends 50 percent of the time in resting state. RSFC is reflective of foundational baseline cognition, emotional and motivational states, and behavioral inclinations.

Fathers’ brains were scanned using fMRI and analyzed for connectivity among various key areas. The men completed a measure of empathy, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, targeting the two dimensions of Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking. The second step took place with baby present, using the Maternal Attachment Inventory (also valid for dads) to measure bonding, and the Parenting Young Children Questionnaire—Infant Version to look at the two dimensions of Supportive and Planning Ahead caregiving behaviors.

Findings

Greater resting state connectivity of the mPFC and LOC was associated with increased reported empathy during pregnancy, subsequent stronger bonding and more effective parenting. While connectivity with some regions was less than predicted (e.g. the precuneus, involved in self-referential processing), the involvement of the mPFC and LOC fits expectations and helps explain the how paternal brain activity connects with prenatal empathic connection, future bonding and caregiving.

In this study, expectant fathers with greater resting state connectivity between mPFC and LOC reported greater cognitive empathy, notably greater self-reported perspective-taking capacity. Other findings did not line up with expectations, and require further study, including the finding of lower connectivity with an important social processing and emotion recognition area called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), suggesting a more complex pattern.

Self-regulatory and emotional functions are changed during intensive caregiving, as parents manage stress and fatigue in order to make required sacrifices and maintain a flexible, positive outlook to embrace joyful, rewarding elements of parenting and mitigate the tougher aspects.

In keeping with expectations, stronger father-infant bonding was reported by dads with greater mPFC-precuneus and superior parietal lobe connectivity. Importantly, increased supportive and positive parenting behavior was correlated, again, with mPFC and LOC connectivity. This is important because it suggests that these brain regions are not only important for empathy and perspective-taking but also tie in with motivational systems and subsequent behavioral outcomes.

Realizing the Paternal Connection

Prior work has shown that fathering quality is associated with positive outcomes for children including lower rates of psychological and behavioral problems, better cognitive and emotional development, and educational achievement (Cano et al., 2019).

For fathers struggling to connect, experiencing postpartum anxiety or depression or otherwise having difficulty with this new and challenging, rewarding role, intervention is necessary. This research is important because it advances both our understanding of the neurobiology of paternal bonding and the impact on early bonding and caregiving as a function of empathy during pregnancy – it highlights the importance of mentalization and attachment even before the child is born.

Fostering empathy and theory of mind is likely to improve bonding and parenting outcomes. Future research using therapeutic approaches including attachment-based and mentalization-based therapies, and approaches developed to reduce trauma transmission and mitigate the impact of depression, anxiety, and related problems, is required to develop and test intervention models.

Fathers who experience empathy early on, who bond well and experience self-efficacy as new parents, are more likely to experience personal satisfaction and well-being, establishing a healthy foundation for a life-long relationship.

References

Narcis A. Marshall, Jonas Kaplan, Sarah A. Stoycos, Diane Goldenberg, Hannah Khoddam, Sofia I. Cárdenas, Pia Sellery & Darby Saxbe (2022) Stronger Mentalizing Network Connectivity in Expectant Fathers Predicts Postpartum Father-Infant Bonding and Parenting Behavior, Social Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2022.2029559.

Mangardich H, Tollefson N, Harkness KL, Sabbagh MA. Theory of mind in dysphoric and non--dysphoric adults: An ERP study of true-- and false--belief reasoning. Soc Neurosci. 2021 Nov 24:1-13. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2021.2005678. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34779696.

Cano, T., Perales, F. and Baxter, J. (2019), A Matter of Time: Father Involvement and Child Cognitive Outcomes. J. Marriage Fam, 81: 164-184. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12532.

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