Presence of spouse alters how parents’ brains react to children stimuli

Summary: When parents are physically together, they have higher similar responses in prefrontal cortex activity to the sound of their infant crying than when they were physically separated.

Source: Nanyang Technological University

A study led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) researchers has revealed how the physical presence of spouses who are co-parenting can alter each other’s brain activity.

The researchers analysed how the brain activity of 24 pairs of husband and wife from Singapore changed in response to recordings of infant stimuli such as crying, when they were physically together and when they were separated.

They found that when spouses were physically together, they showed higher similarities in brain responses to the stimuli than when they were separated. This effect was only found in true couples and not in randomly matched study participants.

The area of the brain the researchers monitored is the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with complex behaviour and emotional states.

When similar brain activity in the same area of the brain (i.e. greater synchrony) is observed in two people, it suggests that both are highly attuned to each other’s emotions and behaviours.

The senior author of the study, NTU Associate Professor Gianluca Esposito, who holds a joint appointment in the School of Social Sciences and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, said, “Our study indicates that when spouses are physically together, there is greater synchrony in their attentional and cognitive control mechanisms when parenting. Since the brain response of parents may be shaped by the presence of the spouse, then it is likely that spouses who do not spend much time together while attending their children may find it harder to understand each other’s viewpoint and have reduced ability to coordinate co-parenting responsibilities. This may undermine the quality of parental care in the long run.”

Assoc Prof Esposito who also leads the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab (SAN-Lab) at NTU said more time together while attending a child may seem a “waste of time.” However, it may prove to help the couple with parenting.

“This finding is particularly useful for parents who are working from home during this “circuit breaker” period in Singapore — as families spend more time together at home as part of social distancing measures in the fight against COVID-19. The entire family interacting together for an extended period may be stressful, but parents can take this time to tune into each other’s behaviour and emotions while caring for their children.”

The study, undertaken in collaboration with researchers from the United States’ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Italy’s University of Trento, was published in the Nature Scientific Reports in May 2020.

How the study was done

The researchers used functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), a non-invasive optical imaging technique to measure the brain signals based on the level of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood in the brain.

This show the single and both parent test conditions
They found that when spouses were physically together, they showed higher similarities in brain responses to the stimuli than when they were separated. This effect was only found in true couples and not in randomly matched study participants. Image is credited to Nanyang Technological University.

Prior to the experiment, couples answered a questionnaire that aims to measure how often the mother or father takes the lead in co-parenting. The couples were then exposed to infant and adult laughter and cries, as well as a static sound either together (in the same room at the same time) or separately (in different rooms at different times).

The NTU research team compared the couple’s brain activity to calculate brain-to-brain synchrony and found that couples showed greater degree of synchrony when they were together than separated. This degree of similar brain activity was found to be unique to real couples and was not observed between randomly matched couples.

Credit: NTUsg.

The paper’s first author Ms Atiqah Azhari, an NTU PhD candidate at the SAN-Lab said, “Our study brings us a step closer in uncovering how the parental brain may be shaped by the physical presence of the co-parenting spousal partner.

To ascertain how synchrony may be beneficial or not for the couple or child, future research should look into how synchrony during positive and negative emotional situations directly affects coordinated caregiving behaviours.”

The paper’s co-first author Ms Mengyu Lim, who is a Project Officer at the SAN-Lab at NTU, said, “The findings of this study may be empowering for those who experience parenting stress — that we should not think of parenting as an individual task, but a shared responsibility with the spouse. Co-parenting requires active teamwork, communication, and trust in each other.”

The study builds on Assoc Prof Esposito’s earlier studies on the effects of parenting stress in the brains of both mothers and their children.

About this neuroscience research article

Nanyang Technological University
Media Contacts:
Press Office ā€“ Nanyang Technological University
Image Source:
The image is credited to Nanyang Technological University.

Original Research: Open access
“Physical presence of spouse enhances brain-to-brain synchrony in co-parenting couples”. by Atiqah Azhari, Mengyu Lim, Andrea Bizzego, Giulio Gabrieli, Marc H. Bornstein, Gianluca Esposito.
Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/s41598-020-63596-2


Physical presence of spouse enhances brain-to-brain synchrony in co-parenting couples

Co-parenting spouses who live together remain in close physical proximity to each other and regularly engage in reciprocal social interactions in joint endeavors to coordinate their caregiving. Although bi-parental rearing is a common occurrence in humans, the influence of the physical presence of a co-parenting spouse on parental brain responses remains largely unknown. Synchrony is conceptualized as the matching of behavioral and physiological signals between two individuals. In this study, we examined how the presence of a co-parenting spouse influences brain-to-brain synchrony when attending to salient infant and adult vocalizations. We hypothesized that brain-to-brain synchrony would be greater in the presence of a spousal partner. Functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) was used on 24 mother-father dyads (Nā€‰=ā€‰48) to measure prefrontal cortical (PFC) activities while they listened to infant and adult vocalizations in two conditions, together (in the same room at the same time) and separately (in different rooms at different times). Couples showed greater synchrony in the together condition; when comparing fNIRS data between true couples and randomly matched controls, this synchronous effect was only seen in true couples, indicating a unique effect of spousal co-regulation toward salient stimuli. Our results indicate that the physical presence of the spouse might establish synchrony in attentional regulation mechanisms toward socially relevant stimuli. This finding holds implications for the role of the co-parenting spouse in influencing social and parental brain mechanisms.

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