The Parent Tag-Team: uncovering the brain-to-brain synchrony

That moment when your baby laughs and you turn to your partner to find that he is experiencing the same emotion of joy as you? how about when attending to your toddler, you and your partner, like a seasoned tag team, just seem to know what to do right away?
Published in Social Sciences
The Parent Tag-Team: uncovering the brain-to-brain synchrony

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According to our recent study published in titled Physical presence of spouse enhances brain-to-brain synchrony in co-parenting couples, such moments of coordination can happen when couples are physically near each other. The research highlights that couples have greater similarity in brain activity when they are next to each other, and especially while listening to emotionally-positive vocalisations (that is, laughter). The parental brain may therefore be shaped by the presence of a co-parenting spousal partner. This may indicate a unique effect of spousal co-regulation toward salient stimuli, providing persuasive evidence that spousal synchrony is adaptive.

The brain activity of 24 pairs of heterosexual couples was recorded using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) while they listened to adult and infant cries and laughter in two different conditions: together (in the same room at the same time) or physically apart (in different rooms at different times).

Experimental set-up in together (left) and separated (right) conditions.

Results showed that brain-to-brain synchrony was greater when co-parents were together, especially so in regions of the brain involved in attentional regulation. Synchrony was found unique to couples who had shared experience parenting the same child, as compared to participants whose data had been randomly matched to form unrelated dyads.

We also explored if the emotional valence of auditory stimuli (positive versus negative vocalisations), as well as certain social factors moderated the co-presence effect. With regard to sound stimuli, infant and adult laughter induced significantly greater synchrony among co-parents, but not infant and adult cry. This suggests that synchronous brain activity may be an adaptive characteristic, as matching brain-to-brain synchrony during positive experiences may in turn enhance the co-parenting relationship. In addition, our results suggest that synchrony between couples in the attentional regulation network was higher when the mother, rather than the father, took the lead in responding. Synchrony was also found to be higher in single-child parents than parents with experience of caring for more than one child. Finally, synchrony was noted to be greater in older parents. While not yet conclusive, the significance of these social factors may indicate much greater complexity behind the regulation of co-parent brain activities.

An all-hands-on-deck approach - co-parenting is most effectively coordinated when both parents are present.

These moments of positive connection that parents develop with each other may just be one of the significant ways to strengthen spousal relationships and tide one through parenting stress. Parenting by itself is demanding, and caring for a child is stressful. While we may think that we are juggling caregiving stress all alone, your partner lying next to you in bed, your ally through the trials of parenting and caregiving, may be your best bet to tackle these challenges together.

Reference original article

Azhari, A., Lim, M., Bizzego, A. et al. Physical presence of spouse enhances brain-to-brain synchrony in co-parenting couples. Sci Rep 10, 7569 (2020).

Authors of the current content

Mengyu LimKelly Sng, Atiqah Azhari and Gianluca Esposito


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