Beyond the Oedipus Complex: What we know about parent-infant relations and why research on the paternal brain may have lagged behind

Article by Iciar Iturmendi Sabater

Graphic design by Sherry An

Trapped in a myth

In Greek mythology, the king of Thebes is warned by an oracle that his son, Oedipus, will slay him, take over the throne, and marry the queen, Jocasta (Oedipus’ own mother). Interestingly, the impact of this omen has reached beyond the ending of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and has continued to inspire thinkers until today.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)1, Sigmund Freud (1886-1939) referred to this myth to represent a child’s unconscious desire to get rid of his father to remain merged to his loving mother, naming it the “Oedipus Complex”.  From the start of the 20th century, psychology has carried the weight of the negative connotation of father-infant relations introduced by Freud.

Then, we may ask: does the theoretical and cultural resonance of Freud’s Oedipus Complex explain, in part, why modern interest in paternal functions has been scarce? 

It may be time neuroscientific and psychological research on fathers raises its voice over this myth.

A Nobel Prize drawing attention to mothers

Ten years after the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)1, oxytocin was discovered by Sir Henry H. Dale (1909). He found that this hormone, produced in the brain’s hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary gland, induced uterus contractions in a pregnant cat.

Oxytocin is produced in higher concentrations in women than men. It was the first polypeptide hormone to be synthesised, which earned Vincent du Vigneaud the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1955. The discovery drew world-wide attention and recognition to the power of medical research in unveiling the mechanisms of the maternal brain. Oxytocin (from Greek, meaning “sudden delivery”) is now used to induce labour, known to control lactation and to be involved in diverse reproductive functions in women, including the regulation of the menstrual cycle.2, 3

While knowledge on the functions of oxytocin in mothers kept growing throughout the second half of the 20th century, interest remained limited in understanding to what extent fathers shared oxytocin-related parental functions with mothers, or what alternative mechanisms may underlie the father-infant relationship.4

Parents as mirrors

As the positivist emphasis of the 20th century propelled neurobiological research on the maternal brain, the development of psychological theories on the mother-infant relationship silently advanced in parallel.

Freud’s differentiation of the role of the mother and father in the psychological upbringing of their infant is arguably sexist as seen through today’s lens. Yet his work lit the spark for others to reflect upon the psychological processes through which the mother introduces a newborn infant to the world. British paediatrician Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) dedicated his life’s work to this matter.

Winnicott studied in detail how the mother acts as a mirror for her infant’s intense emotions: not only is she receptive to the infant’s manifestations of emotion (let that be ceaseless crying and screaming), but she further works through these in her own mind and reflects them back to the infant in a digestible, more tolerable way. For example, the mother opens her eyes widely and slowly says: “I know why you are crying: you are hungry! Food is coming soon”.

In this way, Winnicott argued, the mother provides ‘holding’ for the infant’s mental states, or a secure psychological base from which to make sense of one’s intense emotions and to begin exploring the outside world.5  

It is possible to draw parallels from Winnicott’s work with later findings from neurobiological research.

Children drawn by Winnicott. Winnicott resorted to drawings during his therapy sessions and  to illustrate his theories on the mother-infant relationship. He called the drawings produced in the therapeutic process “squiggles”.
Source: Thinking About Children (R. Shepherd, J. Johns, H. Taylor Robinson (Eds.), 1996).

Metaphors for brain function

Emotion regulation (provided by a mirroring and holding mother) is known to be mediated by top-down control of the brain’s highly evolved prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of executive control, over more primitive structures like the amygdala, a region highly reactive to emotional triggers. 

Neuroimaging research finds that functional brain connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala is not yet established in infants and young children. However, when young children are exposed to the same stressful situation in the presence of their mother, connectivity between these regions is boosted, as if the mother was providing some type of stress buffering or holding their child’s emotions.6

This boost in connectivity is, in part, explained by the release of oxytocin, known to be triggered by social stimuli. In young children, this occurs especially in the presence of the mother. Over time, oxytocin further promotes the formation of social preferences and modulates attachment behaviours.6

Interestingly, prefrontal-amygdala connectivity increases with age. Adolescents can regulate their own emotions when the mother is absent, as oxytocin release becomes less specifically sensitive to mothers’ presence and generalizes to other social stimuli. Maternal presence no longer affects amygdala-prefrontal connectivity, and the individual becomes independent to regulate and hold their own mental states.7

Why wouldn’t this top-down connectivity also be supported by paternal holding and mirroring functions? Current and future research is aiming to target this gap in the psychological and neuroscience literature.

The future of research on the paternal brain

The present theoretical and evidence-based research on the maternal brain clearly outweighs that of the paternal brain. Yet, promising lines of research are building to understand the brains of fathers.

Research on hormones and neurotransmitters beyond oxytocin (i.e., vasopressin, testosterone, endogenous opioids, norepinephrine, prolactin, GABA, serotonin) is providing novel insights into the parental brain. Neuroimaging studies are finding that fathers’ responses to their own infants’ stimuli are not as different from that of mothers as previously thought. From a theoretical perspective, psychologists have proposed that fathers promote interactions with the outside world and provide their children with discipline that sets limits to keep them safe.3

Neurobiological discoveries about the maternal brain have historically advanced in parallel to the development of psychological theories on the mother-infant relationship. Perhaps, using psychological theories to guide medical research on father’s brains can accelerate our current understanding of the father-child relationship, and let it finally break free from the Oedipus Complex myth.


  1. Freud S, Strachey J. The interpretation of dreams. New York: Avon Books. 1965.
  2. Dumais KM, Veenema AH. Vasopressin and oxytocin receptor systems in the brain: Sex differences and sex-specific regulation of social behavior. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2016 Jan 1;40:1–23.
  3. Marazziti D, Baroni S, Mucci F, Piccinni A, Moroni I, Giannaccini G, et al. Sex-Related Differences in Plasma Oxytocin Levels in Humans. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health  2019 Mar 27;15(1):58.
  4. Swain JE, Dayton CJ, Kim P, Tolman RM, Volling BL. Progress on the paternal brain: theory, animal models, human brain research, and mental health implications. Infant Ment Health J. 2014 Sep 1;35(5):394–408.
  5. Winnicott DW. The theory of the parent-infant relationship. Int. J. Psycho-Analysis. 1960;41:585–95
  6. Gee DG, Gabard-Durnam L, Telzer EH, Humphreys KL, Goff B, Shapiro M, et al. Maternal buffering of human amygdala–prefrontal circuitry during childhood but not adolescence. Psychol Sci. 2014 Nov 20;25(11):2067.
  7. Nelson EE, Panksepp J. Brain Substrates of Infant–Mother Attachment: Contributions of Opioids, Oxytocin, and Norepinephrine. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1998 May 1;22(3):437–52.
  8. Winnicott DW. Selected Drawings. Collect Work D W Winnicott. 2016 Oct;279–88. 
  9. Winnicott, DW. A child psychiatry case illustrating delayed reaction to loss. Drives, Affects, Behavior. 1965; 2:341-368.