This Is Your Brain On Fatherhood
If you were to recreate the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” commercial from the 1980s in order to demonstrate the neurological effects of fatherhood, you wouldn’t need a stove or a cast iron skillet. You would just need a slightly smaller egg, because a new study suggests a man’s brain can shrink after having a baby.
Scientists aren’t referring to the same kind of cold-water shrinkage from old Seinfeld episodes, but a complex neurological phenomenon that occurs in parts of the brain that control things like how you pay attention, what you remember, and how you see the world around you.
Researchers discovered this after comparing the brain scans of 40 first-time fathers, both before and after their children were born, to the brains of 17 men without children. The results revealed that the cortex, or outer layer of the brain, shrunk slightly, along with the visual and default mode networks. However, this only happened after men became parents and no such changes were seen in men without kids.
What this means is that areas of the brain that involve attention, planning, executive functioning, processing visual information, daydreaming, thinking about the future and memory, are all in a state of flux.
In other words, it’s not just you. The first few months of fatherhood can feel like a lobotomy.
But the good news is that Darby Saxbe, a psychologist and co-author of the study, believes these changes are likely for the best, and have the potential to inspire more empathy in new dads.
“Becoming a parent entails changes to your lifestyle and your biology and requires new skills like being able to empathize with a nonverbal infant, so it makes sense — but has not been proven — that the brain would be particularly plastic during the transition to parenthood as well,” Saxbe explained in a press release.
More research needs to be done with larger sample sizes of men in order to fully prove this, but it has been well-documented that women experience changes in their brains when they become moms.
"The fact that we have found changes in the cortex both for fathers and mothers suggests that there is some remodeling of the social brain taking place," Saxbe added.
While researchers focus on future studies of the paternal brain, Saxbe shared some practical takeaways for new dads exclusively with Dadpack. For men who want to get the most out of their shrinking brains, she recommends spending as much time with your infants as possible.
“Parenting experience is the best way to develop parenting skills, and the brain also develops and changes as it acquires new experiences and opportunities to learn,” Saxbe recommends. “Taking the time to get to know your unique kids' personalities and needs is a form of learning that will help make men better fathers in the long term.”
Likewise, managing stress and prioritizing sleep and other healthy lifestyle habits like exercise and eating right, though much easier said than done, can go a long way in supporting your brain and body through such a significant transition.
Beyond that, size doesn't matter. In fact, a tinier brain might give you something to empathize with your baby about right out of the gate.