The Parent Brain

Juggling deadlines is hard enough. Raising a child, too? Might as well ask me to perform brain surgery—maybe on Mars, while tap dancing.

As Scientific American Mind’s managing editor, I cope with overlapping deadlines for story editing, art planning and production needs. I can only marvel at parents who hold down a job such as mine while also keeping a child safe, well nourished and happy through the vulnerable early years. Human history, of course, proves that we are capable. Whether foraging for berries thousands of years ago or combing over raw prose as I do now, countless generations of women have found a way to balance their daily duties and child care.

Just how women’s brains achieve that equilibrium—and how men’s do as well—is only now becoming clear. Babies bewitch their parents with new scents and sounds, speeding neural adaptation, as this issue’s cover package explains. In “Maternal Mentality,” psychologists Craig Howard Kinsley and Elizabeth Meyer explore a mother’s morphing brain through the lens of Meyer’s own pregnancy.

Perhaps more surprising is the way a new father responds to a child. As Brian Mossop writes in “How Dads Develop,” hormones encourage neurons to grow and fashion new brain circuits, tuning a father to the sensory stamp of his baby. With Mom and Dad rewired for child care, a newborn is in good hands.

One way a parent can make a baby’s neurons bloom is to raise the child to be bilingual, which produces cognitive benefits such as a better handle on abstract thinking and enhanced short-term memory, reports Erica Westly in “The Bilingual Advantage.” And if overwhelmed parents sometimes lean on television when they need a break, they need not fret too much: some popular shows can actually help youngsters learn life lessons—at least when they watch with friends or family, as I learned in “Pop Star Psychology,” by Sandra Czaja. Raising a child, it turns out, is neither brain surgery nor rocket science but something that biology, shaped by evolution, equips us to do.

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