A fascinating and widely-publicised study suggests that men’s brains are “very plastic” and will mimic a woman’s emotional circuits if their infant lacks a mom.

A leading journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has published a study conducted in Israel based on work by neuropsychologist Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan University and others. Researchers compared the MRI brain scans of 89 mothers and fathers watching videos of themselves caring for their infants. According to Reuters:

Having a baby alters new mothers’ brain activity, researchers have found, and a new study adds the first evidence of such changes in the brains of gay men raising children they adopted through surrogacy.

The men’s pattern of brain activity resembles that of both new mothers and new fathers in the study.

To get a baseline, an MRI was also taken of the subjects watching a video that did not involve their children. When watching their own infants on video, the 20 mothers’ brains showed five times more activity in the amygdala, a region which processes emotions. Meanwhile, the 21 heterosexual dads showed an increase in their cognitive circuits, which help decode babies’ movements so fathers know whether to burp the baby, or change the diaper.

Differences between genders are not surprising. What is intriguing, however, is how fathering changed the male couples’ brains:

“The 48 gay fathers raising children with their husbands seemed to be both mom and dad, brain-wise. Their emotional circuits were as active as those of mothers and the interpretive circuits showed the same extra activity as that of heterosexual fathers.

“Ideally, scientists would perform neuro-imaging on men and women before and then after they became parents, to show definitely that any heightened activity followed junior’s arrival and was not present before. Until they can do that, Feldman said, she is confident that the telltale brain activity results from parenting.

“One clue: in gay fathers, but not heterosexual ones, the brain also had extra communication lines between emotional and cognitive structures. The more time a man spent as primary caregiver, the greater the connectivity. It was as if playing both parental roles caused the brain to integrate the structures required for each.”

Nature versus nurture

This study showed that nurturing an infant changed the nature of men’s brains. Scientific studies like these offer clues to humans’ gray matter. The fact that gays’ neural circuitry is naturally rewired in reaction to an infant, makes one wonder what is possible if men intentionally work to effect a change in their brains.

“Fathers’ brains are very plastic,” Feldman said. “When there are two fathers, their brains must recruit both networks, the emotional and cognitive, for optimal parenting.”

Does this also happen to a mother’s brain if she is a single parent? Would her brain automatically adapt a man’s heightened cognitive activity?

Gray matter versus gay matter

It is interesting that scientists such as Feldman acknowledge the importance of both emotional and cognitive responses to children for “optimal parenting” which occurs naturally when a child has both a mother and a father. As much as it reveals the malleability of our minds, the fact that men’s brains change when a female is missing in a child’s life, shows the importance of motherhood.

Rather than show the importance of homosexual fathers in the development of children, does this research speak more to the crucial need for mothers? Does this study reveal more about gender diversity than sexual orientation?

What if researchers studied the brains of heterosexual men who are primary caregivers? Would their emotive circuitry change as much as gay men’s? Is it a function of the plasticity of the male brain or a reflection of the changeability of gays? And just because a gay man can change, does that mean he should?

If a man’s neural circuitry can change, does that mean his sexual orientation can? And if so, should society support that through legal, political, and cultural means? According to Time magazine:

“The researchers also measured the bonding hormone oxytocin in all the parents and found no difference among the three groups. Feldman, an adjunct professor at Yale University, said this means all three groups are biologically ready for parenthood.”

If there was no difference in oxytocin levels between the men and the women, can we assume these mothers were not breastfeeding? According to the Daily Mail:

“The action of a baby suckling actually changes how the mother’s brain behaves. This results in a massive rush of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin in women’s brains. The release of the chemical in massive surges enhances a mother’s feelings of trust, love and affection, scientists say.”

It is exciting that a man’s brain can adopt a woman’s emotional intelligence. And we can celebrate the flexibility of gay men’s wiring. However, that does not mean that women are interchangeable with men. Not only does nursing benefit mothers by flooding them with oxytocin, but scientists have long acknowledged that breastfeeding is also better for infants than formula. Whether gay or straight, it is impossible for men to breastfeed their children. Here’s Time again:

“Many US adoption agencies do not accept applications from same-sex couples, and in some states it is against the law for a gay couple to apply jointly for custody of a child. This study suggests that, biologically, gay couples are fit to be parents as straight couples are, and could change the debate as to whether gay men should be allowed to adopt children.”

Does this study imply that mothers can be replaced because of the holistic wiring in men’s brains? What about the mother’s estrogen? Her lactation? Are these less important to developing children than a double dose of testosterone?

Yes, a gay man could be “fit” for fatherhood. However, he will never be ready for motherhood.

Why is the ability to assume a feminine trait applauded as proof that gay men are “biologically ready for parenthood” and yet females are, by definition, eliminated from male marriage? Why are surrogate mothers excluded from their children’s lives?

If a man’s brain becomes mom-like when he functions as the primary caregiver, does that give him a license to exclude the mother from the life of the child? Should sex discrimination against mothers be allowed for gay men? Is gayhood more important than motherhood?

And then, the most important question of all: What about the children?

  • If an adult man’s brain is changeable, what about an infant’s?
  • How will the intentional lack of a mother alter a baby’s brain?
  • Biologically, what does the lack of lactation and estrogen do to a child’s neurons?
  • Emotionally, what does gender-deprivation do to an infant? To a teenager?
  • Socially, what will be the impact of segregating marriage by gender and by sexual orientation?
  • How does being raised in a gender-exclusive home impact a child? A culture?

As intriguing as this study is, it generates more questions than answers.

Kelly Bartlett has been practicing life, love, and marriage for decades, hoping to improve her game. She writes from Vermont. She blogs at Home Griddle, where this was first published.

Kelly Bartlett has been practicing life, love, and marriage for decades, hoping to improve her game. She writes from a house nestled in a meadow off a dirt road in Vermont, surrounded by family and friends,...