Becoming a dad touches every element of your life: your stairs acquire gates, your eyes acquire bags and you learn new, jaw-hurting ways of yawning.
But it changes your brain as well. World-renowned neuroscientist and father-of-three Dr Michael Merzenich – who, among loads of extraordinary achievements in his career, co-invented the cochlear implant and discovered lifelong brain plasticity – knows more about the brain than most, and has been investigating how dadhood rewires the ol’ grey matter.
“The brain changes rapidly when important and challenging new things are happening for us,” Dr Michael Merzenich tells HuffPost. “In parallel with child development, a father goes through an equally long period of daddy development that is life-changing and brain-changing on a major scale.”
Even before an infant arrives in the world, an attachment to the child has already begun to grow in the dad’s brain, he explains. And once the baby arrives “that baby literally grows into and becomes part of the self-referenced personhood of the father”.
As fathers don’t give birth, it’s easy to assume any changes taking place are purely behavioural or emotional, rather than biological – but Dr Merzenich insists that is not the case. “The attachment of father to child is biological,” he says. “The synaptic connections in the brain that support this positive association elaborate and grow in their power and reliability, in a happy father-child progression.”
Early attachment to children comes quicker from mothers, given the stronger biological element involved. The release of oxytocin around birth creates an immediate strong reaction that, in turn, leads to a strong feeling of attachment. “From day one, by this hormonal amplification, that baby is just about the most important thing that ever happened, for mum,” says Dr Merzenich.
“Fathers grow their attachment to the child on a slower pace than mothers, but it doesn’t take very long before most dads would literally sacrifice their own lives to protect their babies.”
What about typical “dad traits”, then? Can a passion for rubbish jokes, a deep love of napping and bad taste in jeans be explained by neuroscience? Possibly, says Dr Merzenich. “Males have neurological distinctions that contribute to the differences between mothers’ and fathers’ approaches to parenting,” he says.
“I like to think that one of my roles has been to help my three daughters understand how the wider world actually works, and how they can survive, thrive and be happy within it.
“For me, being a father has been an assignment, for life, that has been the source of innumerable moments of happiness, and delight—which I know has been very good for my brain. And I hardly ever tell rubbish jokes.”