Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Can Fathers Have a Maternal Instinct?

Apparently, the maternal instinct exists. You will be happy to know that science has discovered that mothers’ brains contain a larger amount of a hormone called oxytocin… thereby making them more attentive caregivers of infants and babies.

And yet, the feminist researchers have discovered that if a man spends more time exposed to a baby he will have more oxytocin coursing through his brain. Thus, the maternal instinct seems to be distributed almost equally between men and women.

So says the research. Color me skeptical.

For your edification, here’s the news from National Geographic (via Maggie’s Farm):

Before and after Sarah Blaffer Hrdy met her infant grandson for the first time, she spit into a vial. Two weeks later, when her husband arrived to meet the newborn, she had him do the same thing.

Lab tests later revealed that Hrdy’s levels of a brain chemical called oxytocin spiked by 63 percent that evening. Her husband’s spit showed a 26 percent jump after his initial meeting, but several days later, it also increased to 63 percent.

“There was no difference in the end result between me and my husband, it just took him a little more exposure to his grandson to get there,” she says. Now a professor emerita at the University of California, Davis, the esteemed anthropologist has written extensively about the science of human maternity.

Hrdy is a feminist, so we take her research with many grains of salt.

Oxytocin is also known as the cuddle hormone. Women feel a rush of it when they have sex, for example. Men can produce it, but they produce far less of it.

National Geographic defines its importance:

Chemically speaking, one of the most powerful drivers of maternal behavior seems to be the famous “feel good” hormone, oxytocin. This complex neuropeptide plays a variety of roles in mammal reproduction, including pair bonding, womb contraction, and release of breast milk.

“An orgasm, eye contact, hugs, soft touch—all these things release oxytocin,” says Bianca J. Marlin, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s department of neuroscience.

Allow me to raise a question: first, is a man who feels an oxytocin rush likely to be as fierce a competitor in the business world or on the battlefield? Does oxytocin make him less competent professionally, and thus a less capable provider?

Some researchers reject the idea that the brains of pregnant women are wired to be better mothers. Yet, other researchers have found, using brain scans, that such is precisely the case. Pregnancy rewires a woman’s brain, in order to enhance those functions that will make her a better mother. It does not do the same for fathers, expectant or real.

This report, from the New York Times, dutifully posted on this blog, tells the story.

Some excerpts from research conducted by Dr. Elseline Hoekzema at the University of Barcelona:

Pregnancy changes a woman’s brain, altering the size and structure of areas involved in perceiving the feelings and perspectives of others, according to a first-of-its-kind study published Monday.

Most of these changes remained two years after giving birth, at least into the babies’ toddler years. And the more pronounced the brain changes, the higher mothers scored on a measure of emotional attachment to their babies.

And also:

Pregnancy, she [Hoekzema] explained, may help a woman’s brain specialize in “a mother’s ability to recognize the needs of her infant, to recognize social threats or to promote mother-infant bonding.”

And also:

Researchers wanted to see if the women’s brain changes affected anything related to mothering. They found that relevant brain regions in mothers showed more activity when women looked at photos of their own babies than with photos of other children.

The researchers also scanned the brains of 17 men who were not fathers and 19 first-time fathers before and after their partners’ pregnancies. The two male groups showed no difference in brain volume.

We are all for oxytocin, but we should always be skeptical when the research is performed by people who have an ideological agenda.


David Foster said...

"Allow me to raise a question: first, is a man who feels an oxytocin rush likely to be as fierce a competitor in the business world or on the battlefield?"

Actually, possibly so. There is some suggestion that oxytocin bonds a man more tightly to his in-group and thus can encourage aggression toward an out-group.

...not clear whether oxytocin bonding with a child would be transferrable, though. Probably not.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: We are all for oxytocin, but we should always be skeptical when the research is performed by people who have an ideological agenda.

An obvious test would be to compare levels in adoptive mothers to biological mothers to see if it is the pregnancy itself that is triggering changes, or the experience of being responsible for an infant, or some combination. And comparing biological fathers to nonfathers acting as fathers also seems useful.

Another test would be to see if it really makes mothers say less effective in disciplining older children, while they're nursing an infant. Or maybe it comes and goes quickly as situations change, and many women seem to be experts at changing emotional stances, moving from comforting babytalk to answering a phone and turning off that part of her brain to deal with an adult situation.

Along with David Foster's connection to out-group aggression, this article that also suggests there are negative consequences of oxytocin, making it harder to act constructively in conflict, to "not take things personally."
If a social experience is negative or stressful, the oxytocin activates a part of the brain that intensifies the memory. It also increases the susceptibility to feeling fearful and anxious during stressful events going forward.