I Researched How Having A Child Rewired My Brain And It Blew My Mind
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A new dad is lying on the couch, a place where he used to go to drink beer, cuddle with his queen bee, or relax and watch Netflix in his free time.
Ha. Free time. Now he only finds time to collapse on the couch as a last resort, allowing his infant son to sleep on his chest, so that his girlfriend can snatch a few hours of rest.
It has been a long day. The nanny couldn’t come, so the dad woke up early, went food shopping, cooked breakfast, then worked all day, feeling guilty his queen was alone with the tot, who bashed himself in the face with a rattle and cried until he couldn’t breathe. In short, blah blah blah. But still, a long day.
Despite this, the moment daddy lays on the couch with the boy, he feels a rush of peace and joy he hasn’t felt since the last time he fell in love. It is, in fact, almost exactly the same euphoria, a sensation at once exciting and calm. It’s the tragically rare experience of being totally overjoyed to be exactly wherever you happen to be right now.
Question: Why, after a day of trudging to Trader Joe’s, working without rest, having no time to exercise or shower, is the daddy filled with such joy simply to have 8 pounds of warm baby-child snoozing on his chest?
It turns out there’s some science behind this elation. There are neurological reasons for the emotional changes a parent experiences. The joy may be a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart but it starts in the prefrontal cortex, midbrain, and parietal lobes. Scientists who map the brain can pinpoint increased activity in regions that control empathy. This may also explain why I obsessively check whether the baby is breathing a few hundred times an hour.
The physical activity in the brain is a sign that you are feeling something in your heart. It’s actually the people who don’t go nuts for their babies who are nuts.
It turns out that the empathy-related regions of the brain are right next door to the obsessive-compulsive section. And as someone who spends several hours a day performing the exact same ritualistic martial arts movements and reciting the same Tibetan Buddhist prayers every 24 hours, it would seem to the casual observer that I am not only extremely obsessive-compulsive, but also a very good candidate for the loony bin.
I like to think I’m not nuts. But there is a nut-shaped set of neurons known as the amygdala, which is kind of like an almond in the back of your dome, a processing center for fear, anxiety, and aggression. And the amygdala actually gets bigger after a baby arrives in your home.
Just staring at your baby sets a whole cocktail of hormones and chemicals coursing through the amygdala. The more brain activity you experience in relation to being a parent, the better off you are as a dad. The physical activity in the brain is a sign that you are feeling something in your heart. It’s actually the people who don’t go nuts for their babies who are nuts.
And so it turns out that from a neurological perspective, becoming a parent is actually almost exactly the same as falling in love. You suddenly think someone else’s drool is cute. The dopamine networks in the brain make you think watching your baby is more important than watching Family Guy. It also makes your baby smell good to you (note: this part of my brain isn’t working that well lately. See chapter 13.)
Whereas women have all this stuff hardwired into their brains long before they have a baby, in men the brain voodoo hits us from behind without warning, like a wrecking ball. And so the act of loving your kid is not only emotional but physical: it literally rewires new neural pathways in your brain. When we say having a baby changes everything, it’s not just that we don’t go out clubbing anymore. It’s doesn’t just leave your social life in tatters. It actually changes your grey matter.
That’s something that matters.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.