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.