Brains of Men and Women Respond Differently to Infant Faces

Women's brains become more activated in response to infants' emotional faces, allowing them to adjust their behaviors better during the nurturing period, a study suggests.

Interaction between adults and infants relies heavily on receiving and expressing nonverbal signals, such as facial expressions or emotional sounds. This allows vulnerable infants to communicate their basic needs so adults can address them.

Even though both genders can provide care to infants and older children, women traditionally take the caregiver's responsibility. In the United States, mothers do more than twice as much child care as dads, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center report.

The study published in the BMC Neuroscience in December recruited 26 women and 25 men, whose brain activity was monitored using task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (task-fMRI). The participants were shown images of infant emotional faces, including happy, neutral, and sad.

The study found that women's and men's brains reacted differently to infants' faces, with these differences occurring in networks responsible for facial processing, attention, and empathy.

Furthermore, the researchers examined resting-state fMRI scans that are used to evaluate interactions when a specific task is not being performed. The analysis showed that the connectivity of the default-mode network-related regions increased in women more than in men.

"Brain activations in regions related to emotional networks were associated with the empathetic abilities of women. These differences in women might facilitate them to more effective and quick adjustments in behaviors and emotions during the nurturing infant period," the authors conclude.

In a 2013 National Institutes of Health study, women and men were exposed to the sound of a hungry or crying infant. The participants' brain scans revealed that in women, patterns of brain activity suddenly switched to an attentive mode, while the men's brains remained in the resting state.

According to a 2003 study, women but not men, regardless of their parental status, showed neural deactivation in the anterior cingulate cortex — part of the brain responsible for various cognitive functions — in response to infant crying and laughing.

The BMC Neuroscience paper adds to evidence that women's brains experience higher activation levels compared to men when responding to infant emotions.

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