The Science of Parental Love

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An interview with Professor Dacher Keltner

There are those transcendent moments of parenthood when I watch my children and am gripped with an overpowering love for them. My eyes fill with tears.  That lasts about three seconds. Just until one of my boys breaks my reverie with a scream, or a need or one of those mind-boggling diaper changes.

But that heart-swelling love!  It feels hard-wired. What’s it all about? In homage to that hallowed Hallmark holiday, we turn to UC Berkeley professor and author, Dacher Keltner, to explain how parental love is biologically designed.  — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor

What is the physiological basis for the intense love parents feel toward their children?

Thanks to scholar John Bowlby, we think of this as a highly developed, mammalian attachment system.  It’s a physiological basis that includes a bundle of nerves in the chest called the vagus nerve, which enables communication and connection, a neuropeptide called oxytocin, which generates feelings of trust and nurturant behavior, and parts of the brain in the frontal lobes.

When the vagus nerve fires, people feel a warmth in their chest, a fullness there, and feelings of devotion and beauty and inspiration.  This is the same kind of subjective state enabled by frontal lobe patterns of activation when parents feel that surge of love for their child.

What is the science behind a parent bonding more quickly with one of his/her children over another?

There are a couple of scientifically understood reasons.  A first is that children come into the world with different temperaments (easy, outgoing vs. complex and interior), and I suspect we bond more readily with children whose temperaments match our own. We also know, thanks to the work of Frank Sulloway, that firstborns and latter borns differ dramatically.  Firstborns are a bit more conventional and status-oriented, and latter borns, more open to experience and rebellion.  Those dimensions of our children are also likely to shape the speed with which we bond.

Is the science behind parental love different for mothers and fathers?

It is pretty clear that there are gender, or mother vs. father, differences in many core attachment processes, and in most ways, they suggest that women are slightly more equipped to attach.  Women score higher on measures of empathy, compassion, and love.  They have more circulating oxytocin.  In the simplest sense, they do more of the “work” of childcare — breastfeeding, early care, etc.  But these are general trends, and the differences in attachment are not as great as we stereotype them to be.  There is a great deal of variability in the degree to which women attach, so there is no biological imperative that women are the primary caregivers to children. And we are now seeing record numbers of dads doing the primary parenting while women pursue full-blown careers, as Jeremy Adam Smith documents in The Daddy Shift.

These cultural shifts raise fascinating scientific questions.  Do men show shifts in the underlying physiology of parental love when they engage in a lot of primary care for their children?  What are the differences between women and men in parental love?  I look forward to the science that takes on these questions.

Is the love a parent has for a child, physiologically reciprocal?

Yes and no.

There are powerful imitative, mimetic processes that build in reciprocity to parent/child love.  We have big parts of the brain that enable mutual and reciprocal gaze between parent and child (and receptors that make that inherently pleasing).  We have social patterns like sharing laughter and touch and play that build in reciprocity between parent and child.  Through these processes, it is likely that the underlying physiology of love, or activation in the vagus nerve or “love” related regions of the brain, is reciprocal as well.

That said, over time, children and parents evolved different kinds of love. A child’s love is more reverential versus a parent’s, which is more protective. This makes the quality of the love different and non-reciprocal.

Is it possible for the chemical/physiological bond between parent and child to be broken?

Yes, with alarming frequency, and through many ways — alcoholism, chronic stress, cultural traumas like civil wars and mental health issues.

Is it possible to further develop or enhance physiological connections?

Evolution has crafted a remarkably powerful “attachment system” that involves the frontal lobes, the vagus nerve, and certain neurochemicals (e.g., oxytocin, vasopressin) that I mentioned earlier.  It has also crafted powerful social behaviors that turn that system on, and cultivate our physiological connection to our children.  These behaviors include things like mutual gaze, playful and cooing vocalizations, contagious laughter, skin-to-skin contact, touch ranging from tickling to hugging to napping on the chest, various forms of play (peek-a-boo, rough-housing) and soothing behaviors.  These behaviors are the periodic chart of our connection to children, and the more of this language we learn and practice, the stronger the connection.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley as well as director for the Greater Good Science Center. He is the author of more than 80 scholarly articles and several books including, “Born to Be Good”.

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This article was originally published on February 11, 2011.

Posted in: Science, Communication, Expert Advice, Parental Wisdom, Emotions, Family, Health & Wellness, Mindfulness, Learn, Modern Parenting, The Mother Co. Mamas, Siblings