Straight or Gay: Brain Activities of New Parents Resemble Each Other


Research has shown that, after having a baby, a new mother experiences changes in her brain activity. A new study now shows that the same changes occur in men who are gay and new parents through adoption. The study found that the brain activities of the gay men closely resembled those of new mothers and new fathers.

Revealed on Monday, the research could lend support to the argument that gay male couples should be allowed to adopt babies. Some states prohibit same-sex couples from adopting, while many agencies in the U.S. will not even work with them.

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study was done in Israel. It builds upon work done by Ruth Feldman, a neuropsychologist at Bar-Ilan University. Through the work done by Feldman and others, they found that new mothers’ brains became hyper-reactive to the cries of their baby and various other emotional cues. What was not clear from the findings was whether the response is experiential to motherhood or hormonal and part of the other biological changes that occur during pregnancy.

In order to find out, Feldman, along with her colleagues, videotaped 89 new fathers and mothers at home with their infants. They then measured the brain activities of the parents, who were watching the videos from an MRI tube. They also had them watch videos of the other families to help establish a baseline.

All 20 mothers, the primary caregivers, experienced heightened brain activity in the regions associated with processing emotions while watching their infants on video. The amygdala, in particular, was found to be five times more active than it was at its baseline. Feldman explained that these are regions of the brain that unconsciously respond to indications of their baby’s needs. They also are associated with deriving profound emotional rewards just from seeing the infant.

The 21 heterosexual fathers in the study, though involved in raising the child, were not considered to be the primary caregivers. The cognitive circuits in their brains increased in activity when they watched their baby in the video, particularly a structure that interprets non-verbal cues and sounds the baby makes. It is the part of the brain that can tell the difference between baby’s various squirming motions.

The 48 homosexual fathers who were caring for their baby with a husband showed both mother and father activity in their brains. Their circuits of interpretation were extra-activated like the heterosexual fathers’ were. As well, the emotional circuits were just as hyper-activated as the mothers.

In an ideal experiment, neuroimaging would be done on women and men just before, and then immediately after, becoming parents. This would definitively show whether the heightened brain activity was indeed due to the addition of a baby–and not already present. Feldman, however, feels confident that the brain activity is the result of becoming a parent.

Interestingly, the brains of the homosexual fathers, but not the heterosexual fathers, had extra lines of communication between cognitive and emotional structures. The connectivity was improved as the men spent time as a primary caregiver. It was as if the brain accommodated the man performing both parental roles by integrating the required structures. Finding out that the brain activities of new parents resemble each other can be considered confirmation of the pureness of a parent’s love for their child, no matter what their sexual orientation may be.

Opinion By Stacy Lamy


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