Couples’ minds think alike when together

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Readers may have heard about parents who are “in sync” with each other when raising their children. Now, a new study at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore has used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to demonstrate that when couples are physically near each other, their brains respond to parenting stimuli in the same way.

Courtesy of Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Courtesy of Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

It would certainly appear, then, that both quantity and quality time have an impact on the way families function. And the message is clear: Parenting works best when spouses pay attention to each other.

The study was carried out by researchers at NTU in conjunction with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the U.S. and the University of Trento in Italy. The team used fNIRS, a noninvasive optical imaging technique, to examine signals in the prefrontal cortex — which is associated with emotional responses and more complex behavior — as well as the oxygen levels of blood circulating in the brain.

“fNIRS was used due to its portable nature, which allowed for more naturalistic types of experimental setup — as compared to fMRI, for example,” said the senior author of the study, Gianluca Esposito, an NTU associate professor who holds a joint appointment in the School of Social Sciences and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. “This would increase the ecological validity of the findings.”

Before the experiment, a questionnaire was distributed to the parents that asked how often the mother or father takes the lead in co-parenting. The couples were then exposed — together (in the same room) or separately (in different rooms) — to sounds of infant and adult laughter and cries, as well as to sounds of static. The researchers concluded, through readings that were obtained via multiple sources and detectors on four different channels, that responses to children crying, for example, had a similar effect on parents who were in the same room at the same time.

“The sounds were selected from publicly available online databases,” Esposito said. “To determine that the high-pitched cry was indeed more distressing than the low-pitched cry, participants completed a short distress rating to measure how distressed they felt when they heard the cries.”

The study results were collected prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, but he said lessons could subsequently be learned from parents being required to shelter in place. While the recent lifestyle changes have been challenging, the outbreak could help couples to reconnect — in mind and body — as they spend more time together.

While Esposito’s lab has conducted other research with fNIRS — on mother-child synchrony, for example — he said there is still a great deal to learn about the dynamics of co-parenting. “One potential next step could be to carry out longitudinal research, so that developmental trajectories of the child can be better related to changes in synchronous brain activation.”

Such research could establish whether a family that remains under the same roof for many years will feel similarly about their lives as they grow together.

This research was published in the Nature Scientific Reports (

Published: June 2020
functional near-infrared spectroscopy
Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) is a non-invasive neuroimaging technique that measures changes in hemoglobin concentration in the brain. It utilizes near-infrared light to penetrate the scalp and skull and monitor the changes in blood oxygenation and volume in the cerebral cortex. fNIRS is often used to study brain function and activity, particularly in cognitive neuroscience and clinical research. Key features and principles of functional near-infrared spectroscopy include: ...
Nanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeFunctional near-infrared spectroscopyFNIRScouplesUnited States Institute of Child Health and Human DevelopmentUniversity of Trentoprefrontal cortexGianluca Espositoco-parentingchannelssourcesdetectorsPostscripts

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