Whether their direct caregiving role is full or part time, men have a pattern of activation that is just a little different from women’s. But caring for one’s baby prompts activity in and communication among the same brain circuits, whether a man or a woman is doing it.
Key components in the parental caregiving neural network are circuits that are central in attaching emotional importance to experience (the amygdala, the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, the inferior frontal gyrus and insular cortex, and the ventral tegmentum), as well as others that help us impute needs, intentions or mental state to other people (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the superior temporal sulcus). The circuits that came alive with caregiving involve emotional processing, reward and motivation, and in developing a smooth exchange of give-and-take known as parent-child synchrony.
In mothers, the brain’s emotional processing circuit was most activated by watching videos of their interaction with baby. In fathers who were not full-time caregivers, the largest activations were seen in regions involved in interpreting and responding to another’s social cues. Among gay fathers who were full-time caregivers, both regions were greatly activated, with much cross talk between them.
In females, as luck would have it, the brain structures from which these motivations and behaviors spring are rich in receptors for the hormone oxytocin, a chemical copiously released by females in the wake of giving birth. Although men make oxytocin and are sensitive to its effects, this hormone has not always been seen as a central driver of nurturing behavior.
In this study, researcher found that a woman’s oxytocin levels were a good predictor of activation of her brain’s emotional processing centers - and of affectionate behavior. But in men, higher oxytocin levels predicted more activation in the brain’s centers of social cognition and were associated with better parent-child synchrony.