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Understanding The Power of Parenthood

Aug 15, 2014 07:39 PM EDT

Many animals, including humans, are traditionally selfish creatures. If some organisms were as self-centered about parenting as they are about other lots in life, there would arguably be much fewer offspring in this world. Now researchers have identified brain mechanisms that help prospective parents have a change of heart and bond with their children.

In a paper authored by National Primate Research Center researchers Larry Young and James Rilling, we learn that there are very specific biological mechanisms that dictate a shift in parental motivation. According to the paper published in the journal Science, this shift is often observed  in mammals as a stark change from reluctance prior to birth to an irresistible attraction to their child after it is brought into the world.

"We have learned a tremendous amount about the specific hormonal and brain mechanisms regulating parental behavior and how parental nurturing influences the development of the offspring brain by using animal models," Young explained in a recent release, "and many of these same mechanisms influence human parenting behavior as well."

The paper details how neural influences, such as the hormones oxytocin and testosterone, rise in mammals following the birth of a child.

Oxytocin, with a name that appropriately means "swift childbirth," floods mothers after birth and helps facilitate maternal bonding. It has also been called the "love hormone" where it is seen to spike in humans who are experiencing romantic contact - even during something as simple as a kiss. Past research has theorized that the hormone exists to facilitate better acceptance of anything, and could even potentially help people with eating disorders develop better relationships with food and body images.

In this same way, the hormone helps mammals accept the incessant crying of a newborn - something that some animals (human or otherwise) may not traditionally have the patience for. High levels of testosterone, linked to aggression in males, can be seen as a counterintuitive hormone in the same light.

While the hormone may help animals stay motivated and protective of their young, that heightened aggression could potentially be turned on children, as is seen both in the animal kingdom, and in some tragic human cases.

"With this comprehensive review, we can see nervous system correlations across species that result in positive and negative parental care," Young said. "This information is critical to further studying social development in order to facilitate positive parental behaviors that will benefit generations to come," he continues.

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