The Growing Evidence Against ‘Baby Brain’ Is a Game Changer for Women

Could this be the news that society needs to get rid of prejudices against women in the workplace?
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Sophie Caldecott
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Could this be the news that society needs to get rid of prejudices against women in the workplace?

We’ve all heard the terms “baby brain” or “mommy brain.” I know that during and after my pregnancy, I regularly blamed my unreliable memory and difficulty focusing on the condition, without questioning the science behind it. The mysterious condition of “mommy brain” has been described by Discovery News as what happens “during pregnancy and the postpartum period, [when] women often feel their brains turning to mush. New moms report that they have trouble remembering things that they used to remember easily.”

I was fascinated, then, to read in the latest issue of New Scientist that there is growing evidence to show that the maternal brain doesn’t become less sharp than it was before—in fact, it potentially experiences a number of interesting benefits.

So, what can recent research tell us? Up until now, if “baby brain” had any scientific basis at all, it was from a 1997 study that showed that the maternal brain can shrink by up to 7 percent during late pregnancy, taking up to six months to regain its previous size. This evidence hasn’t been overturned, and it is not well understood why this shrinkage happens, but multiple studies haven’t been able to conclusively prove that women’s cognitive abilities either increase or decrease as a result of this change.

Moreover, what is now becoming clear from MRI scans is that not only is the brain shrinkage temporary, but between three weeks and four months after birth, several areas of the brain actually increase in size, including the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which are involved with reasoning, judgment, and emotion regulation. Areas of the brain involved with learning, emotion recognition, and empathy are also increased. These changes are believed to be permanent, meaning that becoming a mother is as dramatic a change for a woman’s body, biologically speaking, as adolescence.

If you’re a mother reading this, you may be wondering what’s wrong with you. Why haven’t you been feeling these benefits yourself? You’re not alone; studies show that many new mothers and pregnant women rate their memory and reasoning abilities significantly lower than women who are not mothers. But consider this: When you’re pregnant, you usually have a lot on your mind coupled with some physical discomfort of varying degrees, and then afterward you’re sleep-deprived, learning a lot of challenging new things at a fast pace, and learning to juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities. Chances are, you’re probably not taking these things into account or judging yourself fairly.

As New Scientist reports, many involved with this field of study hope that this new research “will assure women—and their employers—that underneath it all, their brains are just fine. . . . maybe better than fine.” This research into the cognitive benefits of motherhood “could make women of childbearing age an attractive hiring prospect for employers, rather than a potential liability.” Improved threat detection, greater emotional resilience, increased strategic thinking, and efficient decision-making are all highly desirable qualities in an employee—and in leaders, too. It seems that pregnancy boosts all this in a woman.

What’s so exciting about this research, then, is that it could turn deeply held cultural assumptions on their heads, forcing employers (and coworkers) everywhere to rethink their attitudes toward working mothers (and women in general). Companies such as Vodafone are already starting to realize that it makes good business sense to hire talented women and support them whether or not they plan on having children. Perhaps this would encourage other employers to think the same way.

Understanding the maternal brain better, including which hormone levels are beneficial, could help us develop more effective treatments for postnatal depression as well. As Laura Glynn from Chapman University in Orange, California, told New Scientist, “[Our lack of understanding of the full impacts of motherhood on the brain is] almost a crisis in women’s health. How can we not know the answers?” It’s encouraging to hear that the research in this field is developing, and you can be sure that we’ll be keeping an eye out for more news with interest. For now, add this to your list of reasons not to fear pregnancy quite so much.

Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography