The Science of Dad Reflexes

Dad reflexes are more than a hashtag. They're an adrenaline-driven response from the sympathetic nervous system.

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Dad reflexes—when a father snaps into seemingly superhuman action to save his kid—are more common than you might expect from supercut videos, subreddits, or hashtags. Because even parents who haven’t gone viral are capable of exercising their dad reflexes and, unless dulled by depression and other mental illnesses, all mammals have fight-or-flight reflexes that can help them to rescue their young from predators. Everyone sort of has “dad reflexes”—even moms.

“There are certain changes in decision-making centers of your brain that tend to amplify your ability to ignore pain,” New York-based surgeon Christopher Hollingsworth told Fatherly, describing dad reflexes. “They tend to override any kind of logical concerns that you have and allow you to function very quickly without thinking of anything else.”

Fight or flight is driven by adrenaline, stoked by the brain’s frontal cortex, Hollingsworth explains. The frontal cortex, which controls personality and decision making, also activates when adults see children’s faces, research suggests. When you’re looking at your own kid, this brain activation (and adrenaline spike) can intensify through imprinting — that is, your own child’s smell, touch, and other unique qualities that develop and reinforce the parent-child bond. 

Obviously, there shouldn’t be much difference between “mom reflexes” and “dad reflexes”, given that the process is mediated by adrenaline and the frontal cortex. But there are some fundamental differences between how men and women respond in a fight or flight scenario. Unlike women, men tend to respond to stress by releasing large amounts of hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the bloodstream, which provokes this primitive survival response by heightening blood pressure and motor activity. Scientists suspect that this reaction is a result of the SRY gene, which men have in their Y chromosome, whereas women do not, despite their tendency to say “sorry.” This may explain how fathers specifically landed the hashtag. 

These unique male changes do not necessarily indicate that mom reflexes are inferior to dad reflexes — they’re just different. Hollingsworth calls on his own experiences as a father and husband noting that, while he’s caught his kids from their fair share of falls, his wife is much more intuitive in the day-to-day, and better at preventing falls in the first place. “I would say mothers’ instincts are much stronger than men’s, anecdotally based on my family,” he says.

It is important to note that dad reflexes are natural but only universal to a certain extent. Substance abuse issues, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health problems can override dad reflexes. Ditto with postpartum depression — which is just one more reason for parents to take their own mental health issues seriously. And dad reflexes come from a very serious place. Hollingsworth suspects that they tap into fight or flight because mammals are built to consider anything happening to their children unacceptable. 

“It’s also probably why the loss of a child is something people never get over,” Hollingsworth notes. “That is hardwired in us to be something that you cannot let happen. And if it does, then you feel like something is wrong with everything in the world.”

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