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Being a Dad is Good For Your Brain

What science and life’s experiences have taught this neuroscientist about fatherhood

Becoming a father is great for a man’s brain health — starting when he first learns that a new child is expected, and then on the father’s journey throughout the development and life of the child.

Brain Changes Upon Learning the Big News

A lot of attention gets paid to the changes in the brain associated with motherhood, but fatherhood also drives brain health in a major positive direction. Those positive changes typically begin when a new dad first learns the “big news.” 

That news often comes as an especially important surprise, which results in the brain pumping noradrenaline and acetylcholine —chemicals produced in the brain that brighten your spirits when you encounter new things that merit your special attention and that set you up for fast new learning. For most up-coming dads, the announcement of an expected new arrival in the family is interpreted by the brain as very good news, which results in the brain pumping out lots of dopamine — the ‘rewarding’ chemical that your brain produces to make you feel warm and happy.

These three “neuromodulatory” brain chemicals improve mood and amp up the brain, and as a fabulous bonus, increase its plastic responses to change and new learning. And for a new dad, there’s a lot of new learning that is going appear on his schedule!

Brain Changes During the Pregnancy

Sometimes people are surprised to learn that the father experiences brain changes during pregnancy — properly crediting mom as being more neurologically-specialized for some of the very special tasks at hand.

In most cases, the father is deeply attached to the mother-to-be and to the expected new addition to the family. That attachment with the child-to-be — which arises from physical changes in dad’s brain — begins to grow across the period of pregnancy. In a very real sense, through this physical change in his brain, the father loves the child well in advance of the baby’s actual arrival!

There are also all kinds of planning and special interactions with mom and the anticipated baby that are occurring. It’s a lively time in life when you’re preparing for a newborn’s arrival, with all its expectations, challenges, and new learning. That all translates to a lively and healthy time for a father’s brain!

Video above: Interview with Dr. Merzenich about the Brain on Fatherhood

Brain Changes from Child-rearing

Brain changes from child-rearing commonly begin with an especially exciting moment. The first time the father holds a child in his arms, he feels, smells, sees, and hears the baby that he and the mother-to-be have been anticipating — this beautiful little girl or little boy. What a moment! Imagine the celebratory chemical explosions that are going off in his brain at such a time.

When doctors describe post-natal brain changes in the mother, they often focus on the flood of oxytocin — the brain chemical that amplifies that special attachment that is “stage one” for binding the parent to the child (and vice versa) for life. Once the oxytocin rush has calmed down, over thousands of hours of child-rearing, that attachment grows progressively, as the child becomes an extension of “self” in the brain of the parent. That same attachment, which began before baby even showed up, is going to continue to grow over time in the brain of any loving dad, all across the span of childhood. Nature’s strategy is to bond father and child to one another, for life. Nature usually does a good job of this!

The million-and-one largely unpredictable moments in a father’s interactions with his child are brain food for both of them. All kinds of exciting things are happening that are changing both of their brains. We usually focus our thoughts on “child development,” overlooking those parallel changes in “daddy development.” Everything that’s happening in a father’s interactions with his little boy or girl is important — and when things are important to us, the learning brain is turned up on “high!”

Think of all the things that a father is teaching a child. He takes the child to the zoo or to the park or to climb a mountain. He is helping his child understand how a game works or how to play with this toy or build this or explain that or behave like so. All of these things are not just positive for the child. They are also positive for the father, neurologically and emotionally.

Child-rearing presents a whole new set of challenges. Challenges that matter change your brain. When things really matter to you, you’re in a brain-changing mode. Hardly anything matters to a father more than the welfare and education of his child.

Brain Change When Your Children Have Children

I like to think of grand-parenting as a third pass at getting things right in life. The first pass was as a child, and the second, for me, as a father guiding my children. You get a precious third chance as grandpa.

As a grandparent, you’re almost inescapably re-analyzing and re-constructing life experiences in your brain to make better sense of them. This comes strongly into play when you are watching and helping your grandchildren, as they explore the world and try to understand how it works. You’ve gathered a lot of useful and arcane knowledge, and you’re continuously analyzing and weighing things in your brain to try to help and to explain it all to them. Ultimately, the product of that is supposed to be — and you dream it would be — wisdom. 

Even though I can’t lay a major claim on wisdom, I can say that based on quite a few decades of life experience, being a father is just about the best thing that ever happened to me.

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