There are so many times when, as parents, we feel like we don't really know what we're doing, but there are also times when we almost feel like we're on autopilot.
If you've ever felt like part of your brain was able to parent on cruise control, science may have an explanation: Parenting behavior may be hard-wired, according to new research.
An animal study published this month in Nature found that neurons in a brain-wide circuit responsible for parenting behaviors sends signals to a subset of neurons that trigger certain actions. So, for example, when a mama mouse feels the need to groom her pups, researchers from Harvard University were able to identify the specific neuron subset that sets off that behavior. And other behaviors, such as motivation, feeding or social interaction, are triggered by individual and unique subsets of neurons, according to the study's findings.
"What we were able to do was first better understand the wiring of these neurons—what type of signal they receive from the rest of the brain, and what type of signal they send to the rest of the brain," lead researcher Catherine Dulac, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, tells Psychology Today of the findings. "Our hypothesis was that different brain areas are in charge of particular aspects of parenting. We tested these experimentally by both activating [the neurons] as well as inactivating them. Guess what? Our hypothesis was confirmed."
Dulac and her team first identified the parenting circuit in mice back in 2014. According to the Nature study published that year, the researchers discovered that galanin neurons, expressed in the hypothalamus area of the brain, are essential in managing parenting behavior. When those neurons were gone, Dulac tells Psychology Today, "the animals, whether they are moms or dads, no longer parent."
Of course, both studies were conducted with mice, so more research would be needed to see how parenting behavior is regulated in the human brain. But, Dulac says, it's "entirely hypothetical" that the parenting circuit is organized in much the same way in humans as it is in mice.
After all, Dulac continues, each neuron found in the hypothalamus overseeing instinctual parent behaviors "play exactly the same role throughout the evolution of the mammalian brain." "[And] parenting is a very conserved behavior across mammals," she adds, so it's likely that, even though the human brain is larger than a mouse brain, "this seat of the control of parenting is very likely to be conserved."
It's not a far-fetched theory, either. An Israeli study published in 2014 found taking care of children activates a parenting network in the brain uses two separate, but ultimately linked, neural pathways. And this was true for fathers in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships as it were for mothers, suggesting that the so-called maternal instinct is actually just a parental one.
But Dulac's recent study may have broader implications beyond knowing how the brain controls parenting. Scientists may also be able to gain insight into why certain conditions present themselves after people become parents. "Once you try to understand the normal functions of this subset of neurons," Dulac tells Psychology Today, "then maybe you can understand sometimes why this goes wrong as in postpartum depression."
The research also provides some insight into why so many new parents describe the moment their child is born as feeling like an internal switch has flipped. If you're currently expecting and nervous about parenting, don't worry—you've definitely got it in you, mama.