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New study reveals father-child brain-to-brain synchrony during puzzle play

  • Date

    Tue 12 Jan 21

Pascal Vrticka

Dads who want to form a stronger bond with their youngster could try solving a puzzle or engaging in another problem-solving activity with them.

Scientists have discovered that during puzzle play the brains of fathers and their children synchronise – literally putting them on the same wavelength and thus more in tune with each other.

Dr Pascal Vrticka, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, explained: “As social animals, humans spontaneously and seemingly effortlessly get “in sync” when interacting with one another. 

“Thinking about similar things at the same time and having the ability to react to one another instantly has been shown to boost cooperation, social connection and positive thoughts about others. The underlying coordination of our behaviour and physiology – also called bio-behavioural synchrony – is thought to help us understand and bond with one another. 

“Especially the synchronising of brain activity is interesting because we knew it happened between mothers and their children, but didn’t know if the same was true with fathers.

"This is important for two reasons. First, recent research shows that men are biologically wired to provide offspring care. And second, dads are increasingly being recognised as caregivers and attachment figures to their children.”

In the study 66 fathers and their 5-to 6-year-old children, were asked to solve puzzles, either together or on their own. Their brains were scanned simultaneously using dual functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). 

The dads were also asked about their attitudes towards fatherhood – how capable they felt and whether it was important for them to be involved with and act sensitively towards their children.

“Our results revealed that fathers and their children showed increased brain-to-brain synchrony when solving puzzles together compared to solving puzzles independently.

“We also found that those who thought of themselves as being warm and supportive fathers had increased brain-to-brain synchrony with their children. This shows the importance of paternal involvement on the father-child bond, particularly in terms of neural synchrony during joint problem-solving,” added Dr Vrticka.

The results from the father-child study were compared with data from a similar mother-child study conducted previously by the same group of researchers.

The team found that although both mothers and fathers showed an increase in brain-to-brain synchrony during social interaction with their children, the overall bio-behavioural synchrony patterns were somewhat different.

This opens up new avenues of research into parent-child interaction and the role of mothers and fathers in their child’s development.

The research team included contributions from scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (Leipzig, Germany) and the University of Vienna (Austria).  

The paper was published in Child Development.