An Inside View of Father’s Face

Adult’s brains respond to photos of their fathers.

Posted Apr 30, 2014

What happens to a son's or daughter's brain when viewing a photo of dad?

Perhaps you have a parent’s photograph placed on a wall or desk within easy view. You might find humor in how dad was dressed, and how young he looked. Now you see him in a different light: perhaps you are a parent yourself, and in reaching adulthood your outlook on your father has matured.

Several recent studies ask what happens inside adults’ brains when they view photographs of their fathers. To provide comparisons with brain activity in relation to fathers, these studies compare activity with mothers, and with other control stimuli such as unrelated males and females. Let’s take a look at what a couple of these studies have found.

In a 2010 paper by Marie Arsalidou, Emmanuel Barbeau, Sarah Bayless and Margot Taylor conducted in Toronto, Canada, they enlisted 10 adults, 4 of them males, of around 35 years of age. All participants had grown up with both parents. The researchers employed fMRI to study brain responses to photos, including of fathers. What did they find?  

Face-processing areas such as the fusiform gyri were activated most when subjects viewed photos of their mothers. Those same face-processing areas were not differentially activated when viewing photos of fathers, unrelated males or celebrity males. Does that make dad a strange kind of household celebrity? That is unlikely. Instead, the authors suggest that the primacy of brain response to mothers represents a greater familiarity. They write, “Our data suggest that mothers’ faces are more salient than fathers’ faces and/or evoke richer cognitive, emotional and/or social memories shared between participants and their mothers.” (p. 49)

They also note that viewing mother’s face tended to activate the right hemisphere more, whereas viewing father’s face activated the left hemisphere more. That is further evidence of sex-specific processing of parental photos. Moreover, viewing photos of fathers was associated with greater caudate activity, with the idea that the caudate is involved in emotional processing.

In a 2013 paper by Junqiang Dai, Hongchang Zhai, Anbang Zhou, Youngyuan Gong and Lin Luo, researchers employed a different method—event-related potential (ERP)—to study young adults’ brain responses to photos of their fathers and mothers relative to strangers. ERP provides more rapid but less localized measurement of brain activity than fMRI. Thirty-one Chinese undergraduate students of around 20 years of age, and about half male, participated. The participants also completed a questionnaire assessing their attachment to their parents.

Attachment scores from the questionnaire were no different between fathers and mothers. Several ERP responses were also similar in response to viewing photos of fathers and mothers. The P3a, P3b, and N2b responses were all different when viewing photos of dad compared with unrelated men. However, the P3a response to viewing photos of fathers was related to paternal attachment, though there was no relationship between P3a response to viewing photos of mothers and maternal attachment. Why the difference? The authors write, “We suggest that this phenomenon can be supported by evolutionary perspectives that demonstrate that, because of the internal gestation and obligatory postpartum suckling, the mother always provides more direct care to their children….Thus, maternal cues with survival significance, such as a mother’s face, are probably not modulated by the experienced attachment relationship.” In other words, they suggest that the more variable nature of paternal care in humans underlies the association between brain activity and attachment variation.

These studies are early in the effort to study brain responses of children to parents. They also go against the grain of most parent-child brain imaging research—which has largely focused upon parents, especially mothers, in response to infant visual and auditory stimuli. These studies suggest some differences in how adults’ brains process photos of fathers relative to control stimuli and in relation to photos of mothers. While the variable involvement of fathers may underlie some links with emotional processing and attachment, and perhaps with less “familiarity” implicated in brain imaging, it really is true that dad can get in our heads.


Arsalidou, M., Barbeua, E. J., Bayless, S. J., & Taylor, M. J. (2010). Brain responses differ to faces of mothers and fathers. Brain and Cognition, 74, 47-51.

Dai, Junqiang, Zhai, Hongchang, Zhou, Anbang, Gong, Younguan, & Luo, Lin. (2013). Asymmetric correlation between experienced parental attachment and event-related potentials evoked in response to parental faces. PLoS ONE, 8(7), e68795.

About the Authors

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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