It’s a well-known comedic trope. Deep in the night, a couple sleeps in their comfy bed. Suddenly, a scream, and their child begins wailing. Good-bye peaceful sleep. Neither of the parents wish to get out of bed to check on their child, and a back-and-forth mental argument ensues, with each parent subtly trying to pressure the other into attending to the infant. In the end, only one of the unlucky parents got booted off the bed. Chances are, it was the mother.
Most parents would have experienced something similar when taking care of their newborn child. As co-parents often live in physical proximity to each other and make effort to coordinate their caregiving practices, it would seem that these established patterns of caregiving behaviors would align co-parents’ brain activity. That is what we studied: how the physical presence of a co-parenting partner would impact how their brains are in sync when they listen to emotional auditory stimulation (in other words, cries and laughter).
Brain activity of 24 mother-father couples was recorded using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) while they were listening 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). Results showed that brain-to-brain synchrony was indeed greater when co-parents were physically together, compared to when they were apart. Moreover, synchrony was only found for true mother-father couples who had shared experience parenting the same child, and not for randomly matched mother-father couples.
Synchrony of brain activity happens after spending a significant time together and coordinating caregiving behaviours. This synchronous effect was found in areas of the brain involved in regulating attention, and especially in areas that regulate attention towards emotional stimuli. Synchrony in this area when co-parents are exposed to vocalizations may show that co-parents have a tendency to process auditory and affective information in a similar manner. This could mean that the presence of a co-parenting partner actually facilitates the matching of brain processes that helps to organize the parents’ upcoming caregiving behaviours.
Taking our results a step further, auditory stimuli of infant and adult laughter induced significantly greater synchrony among co-parents, but not infant and adult cry.
In this case, laughter conveys the emotional quality of happiness and joy. The fact that brain-to-brain synchrony occurs largely in an emotionally positive context but not negative contexts also indicates that synchronous brain activity may be an adaptive feature, as demonstrating synchrony in negative and potentially stressful situations may lead to co-parents being excessively affected by the other’s negative moods. On the other hand, matching brain-to-brain synchrony during positive experiences may in turn enhance the co-parenting relationship.
Parenting is a unique and, quite literally, non-replicable experience that couples go through. In some occasions, parents might decide to divide the time they spend time together with their child. While this is helpful in maintaining both physical and mental energy, it should not be the only parenting arrangement. Indeed, parents spending time together with their partner and their child increase their similarity in their brain responses, and live their parenting experience in a more aligned way.
When we look at our findings in today’s context in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we acknowledge that it may be more stressful than ever to parent a child. This is because many families are now living and working in close proximity, and forced to spend the majority of their time in close proximity. However, it could be helpful to treat this as a rare opportunity to further tune into each other’s mental state, and pay more attention to how everyone in the family is faring.
Overall, although parenting is stressful and grounds for losing some well-deserved sleep, we hope that this paper can inspire parents to adopt a team approach in coordinating their caregiving and parenting efforts as best as they can. After all, for better or worse, in times of joy and sorrow, co-parents are presented with the exceptional opportunity to take part in the nurturing of a young life together.
Gianluca Esposito, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore & University of Trento, Italy
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Azhari, A., Lim, M., Bizzego, A., Gabrieli, G., Bornstein, M.H., Esposito, G. (2020) Physical presence of spouse enhances brain-to-brain synchrony in co-parenting couples. Scientific Reports, 10:7569. DOI: