Neurology / Neuroscience Parenthood Pediatrics / Children's Health

Parents’ brain activity synchronizes in each other’s presence

Physical closeness can help get couples on the same parenting page, a new study suggests.

Happy family eating together
Physical proximity may aid coordination of parenting techniques, suggests new research.

Parents’ prefrontal cortex activity on response to child-related stimuli is more synchronous when they are together than when they are separated.

So suggests a paper outlining work led by researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which appears in Scientific Reports.

The paper suggests that parenting together makes couples more attuned to one another’s approach to parenting than they would be alone.

“Our study shows that when spouses are physically together, their attention and cognitive control mechanisms are more synchronous when parenting,” explains senior author Gianluca Esposito, from the NTU School of Social Sciences and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

“Since the brain response of parents may be shaped by the presence of the spouse, then it is likely that spouses who do not spend much time together while attending their children may find it harder to understand each other’s viewpoint and have reduced ability to coordinate co-parenting responsibilities. This may undermine the quality of parental care in the long run.”

— Gianluca Esposito

The study

The researchers tracked brain activity in 24 mother-father cohabiting parenting couples. They did this using Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) functionality. FNIRS is a non-invasive technique in which participants wear electrode headsets allowing scientists to monitor improvements in levels of hemoglobin through infrarot.

The team analyzed behavior in the left inferior frontal gyrus, left middle frontal gyrus and anterior bilateral brain regions of PFC (aPFC). All of these areas have to do with careful regulation and cognitive control.

In addition to testing the couples, the researchers paired randomly the brain signals of mothers and fathers from different couples to serve as study controls.

Each couple filled out a questionnaire before testing began which asked to what degree one parent or the other typically takes the lead when interacting with a child.

Each pair then heard a selection of audio samples, both individually and together. This included:

  • adult female cry
  • adult female laugh
  • infant cry, high pitched
  • infant cry, low pitched
  • infant laugh
  • static noise

Together and apart

The increase in synchrony recorded by the paper as its primary finding was uncovered by a comparison of real activity in actual couples listening to these clips against individually.

The sounds that produced the greatest alignment were positive and neutral sounds when couples were together: infant laughter, adult laughter, and statics.

The result of crying was less synchrony, that of both infants and adults. The writers of the paper say that this could be due to the greater emotional strength, or valence, which invokes pleasant sounds.

The paper also revealed the following:

  • Couples in which the mother rather than the father was the primary parent exhibited greater synchrony when the two parents listened together.
  • When a mother had given birth to a single child, synchrony was more pronounced than if a mother had given birth to more than one child.
  • Synchrony was lowest in older parenting couples, possibly due to these individuals having “greater security in their own roles as parents.”
  • Control couples did not exhibit any significant synchronization of brain activity in response to the audio stimuli.

Why this matters

Esposito notices that this research is timely and says:

“This result is particularly useful for parents who work from home during this ‘circuit breaker’ era in Singapore, as families spend more time together at home as part of social distancing steps to combat COVID-19.”

“The entire family can be stressful communicating with each other for an extended period of time, but parents will use this time to change the actions and emotions of each other when caring for their children.”

He agrees that parenting simultaneously can seem a waste of time to certain couples. This could be particularly true during lockdown in cases where each parent has other work to complete on their own.

Nonetheless, the research clearly suggests that spending time together tending towards a child can help parent partners in a more coordinated way.