Does Motherhood Really Make You Smarter?

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There’s a widespread belief that parenting atrophies women’s mental muscles. Does scientific evidence support or dispute the notion that motherhood improves perception, emotional intelligence, efficiency, and more? Here’s the latest research on whether motherhood boosts the brain.

Stacy Maisch is a busy mom to eleven-month-old Robbie. Between her personal and professional obligations, she at times feels like she’s losing her mind. Recent examples of what she attributes to “mommy brain” include folding an entire load of laundry only to dump it back into her washing machine. Or preparing dinner and returning dirty dishes to the fridge and milk to the pantry.

Cyndi Harper can relate. “Most of my mommy brained-ness occurred when my son Jack was a newborn. It could have been the hormones or sleep deprivation, but I’m fairly sure it was from the brain cells I lost while giving birth,” says Harper.

Aside from the forgetful episodes, Harper says her biggest fear was that she would do something horrible because of her “mommy brain” like forget to take her son out of his car seat. “To this day, eight months later I still look in the back seat at least once a day to make sure that my baby is safe and not left somewhere at the dry cleaners or grocery store.”

On the flip side, Joanne Hayes-White, San Francisco Fire Chief—and the first woman and mother to head an urban city’s fire department—attributes raising three children all under the age of twelve to making her smarter and better at her job.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright took several years off work to raise her three daughters and said in an interview that she would probably put parenting on her resume if she were looking for a job today.

How can we explain the differences in these “mommy brain” experiences?

Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Ellison was also worried about getting “mommy brain.” “I was so scared I would fall apart on the job that I had a dream back when I was a foreign correspondent, in which I heard space aliens had landed in Brasilia but couldn’t decide if I should go report on it,” she says.

Ellison wanted to learn more and has written a book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, to address some of these questions.

Defining Mommy Brain

Society’s stereotype of mothers often shows them as being less intelligent or scatterbrained—a little ditzy at times, implying that parenthood has a certain “dumbing down” effect. As an example, when researchers at DePaul University tested people’s responses to videos of women in various work situations, the audience always viewed the pregnant women as less competent.

Ellison says that unfortunately many women are convinced their brains are damaged by having children. “They get anxious when they are forgetful or find focusing difficult—but this is often not a product of harm that motherhood does but sleep deprivation, stress, or the impact of having to learn so much new information in short amount of time.”

Despite the common view of moms’ deteriorated minds, leading scientific brain researchers are convinced that motherhood provides women with stimulating brain enrichment. As Dr. Craig Kinsley, professor of neuroscience at the University of Richmond says, “Any experience of temporary ditziness is a tradeoff for a better functioning and focused brain later on.”

The Science of Mommy Brain

For the past eight years, Dr. Kelly G. Lambert, a neuroscientist, mother of two, and chair of the psychology department at Randolph Macon College has been studying rodents to learn how pregnancy and motherhood converge to prepare a mom to better care for her offspring.

“From an evolutionary point of view, the mommy brain myth makes no sense,” says Dr. Lambert. “Sure, I can understand when there is a whole new person developing inside of you during pregnancy that there may be some mild compromises such as memory impairment due to diverted energy sources, but, once the baby arrives, it’s important that the mom be able to protect her genetic investment.”

Dr. Lambert and her colleague Dr. Kinsley started testing rats in various situations to see who fared better. These are some of their findings:

  • In a foraging maze where rats had to seek out their favorite cereal, rats did better in the maze after having pups, indicating better spacial memory. 

  • In post-lactation phase, mother rats were allowed to age and were tested throughout their lives. The scientists found that motherhood reduces stress levels during lactation and throughout a rat’s life up until what is the equivalent of 75 years in human years. Spatial and cognitive ability was also enhanced in old age as well. “Having pups at four months reduced stress responsivity 18 months later,” says Dr. Lambert. 

  • Females with reproductive experience were capable of learning to run a radial-arm maze more quickly and with fewer errors than those that had never given birth. 

  • Rats that were exposed to their young had an enhanced rate of neurogenesis (NG)—the production of neurons in the brain. This occurred early in postpartum when maternal behavior was being established. As pups became older and more independent, venturing further away from the mother for longer periods of time, less NG was observed. 

  • The studies demonstrated that maternal experience may modify women’s susceptibility to addiction. 

  • The effects of motherhood—such as enhanced perceptions and brain development—appear to be long lasting or permanent.

Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal has shown that the more attention the rat mom gives her offspring in the first three weeks of their lives, the less stressed mothers are at the end of their lives and the smarter they are in their water mazes.

“Sadly, research also suggests the flip side,” says Dr. Lambert, “Neglect early in a child’s life can result in high anxiety throughout adulthood among other problems. Our findings suggest that moms may have a post-puberty window of neuronal growth during their maternal experiences. If so, it is important for women to realize this window of opportunity and re-structure our cognitive approach toward motherhood.”

Implications of this Research

“The changes that occur during pregnancy show the plasticity of the female brain,” says Dr. Kinsley. “In rodents, hormonal events of single and multiple pregnancies and lactations appear to rework the female brain in ways that facilitate learning, memory, problem solving, stress reduction, and life-long cognitive activities.”

Rat studies are relevant to humans because the parts of a rat’s brain that activate during maternal behavior are almost identical to those of a human female.

“Of the systems that are affected as a result of pregnancy, and that regulate the many behavioral changes characteristic of the female, the brain experiences the most striking modifications,” says Dr. Kinsley.

What Does This Mean for Mothers?

The plasticity of the brain through the influence of hormones, mental stimulation, and repetitive behavior as with mothers in pregnancy and child rearing contributes to the changing and growing of the brain over a lifetime. New neurons and connections are made all the time.

“There are certainly more times in life when there are windows of brain development, when the brain is more plastic than at other times. Motherhood is one of those times,” says David Lyons, a Stanford University primatologist.

In her book, Ellison helps outline the benefits of Lambert and Kinsley’s research, among others, and how this knowledge benefits mothers.

Five Attributes of a Baby-Boosted Brain

Perception: Nasal, audio, radar, touch. The plasticity of a mother’s brain is strengthened. Senses used with a newborn re-map part of the mother’s brain, improving ability to interpret information. 

Efficiency: J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, says she would write voraciously when her child went down for a nap. Many mothers experience the feeling of not having enough time in the day to get things done, but the release of dopamine in the brain during stressful situations may play a role in developing/enhancing the characteristic of efficiency. 

Resiliency: Oxytocin, a hormone found in high levels in mothers, keeps stress away so that moms can cope with more. Research has shown that it may directly help memory and learning. 

Motivation: Just like the rats, mothers who feel a responsibility to protect and feed their young performed better at foraging for food and taking risks. These traits improve their ability to focus and attain goals, and induce competitiveness and ambitiousness, greater risk taking, the ability to adapt to change quickly, and bold displays of courage compared to those that are not mothers. This “no fear” attitude may be attributed to the release of oxytocin and prolactin—another hormone the helps moms handle anxiety and fear. 

Emotional Intelligence: Emotional Intelligence (EI) traits, including self awareness, mood management, empathy, self motivation, and managing relationships, can contribute to stronger friendships, marriages, and physical health, as well as provide a competitive edge in workplace—particularly with jobs that involve a lot of contact.

Why We Should Care

“You can define smart in many ways, but for me one aspect is responding at a sign of trouble, especially if it involves your own offspring,” says Katherine Ellison.

Prominent Australian neuroscientist Allan Snyder compares pregnant women with Albert Einstein. “Women’s memory is not reduced during pregnancy,” he maintains, “Rather their attention is on things that are more immediately crucial. Einstein was known to forget where he put checks of large amounts, not because of bad memory, but rather because of deep concentration on things of greater importance.”

Additionally, Emotional Intelligence is placing a more significant role in the workplace. Ellison cites these findings:

  • The most successful US Air Force recruiters turned out to score highest on EI test. 

  • Veteran partners in a multinational consulting firm who scored high on an EI survey delivered $1.2 million more profit from their accounts than did other partners. 

  • In jobs such as sales and mechanics, top emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) performers were found to be 85 percent more productive than workers of average emotional intelligence. With more complex jobs such as insurance sales or account managers, the difference rose to 127 percent.

“Working mothers who care for their own children for large parts of each day may accordingly bring special talents to the millions of jobs available in fields such as nursing, physical therapy, and fitness,” says Ellison.

Ellison hopes that mothers will inform themselves about cutting edge research to be more conscious of the changes they’re going through, in particular the positive ones, and—keeping their attention on the positive—make the parenting experience more rewarding. “I do believe that when you’re focused on what you can learn from a given experience, you learn more.”

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