Mommy brain: an air of absentmindedness and distraction that often plagues the minds of new moms. It begins in pregnancy, when the first hints of forgetfulness become apparent. Never mind the fact that you’re carrying and nurturing another life, barely sleeping at night, and mentally planning to care for a child for the next 18 plus years (the diapers! the parental guidance! the college tuition!). If you lose your thought midsentence or accidentally wear two different shoes to the office, everyone chuckles and writes it off as mommy brain.
But before you allow the joke to cause you to question your intelligence, know this: that mommy brain thing? It’s real. Our brains do change when we become mothers. In fact, motherhood actually makes us smarter.
Of rats and women
When attempting to learn more about the brains and behavior of humans, scientists often turn to the study of another maternal mammal: rats. R. Adam Franssen, PhD, assistant professor of biology at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, teamed up with a few other doctors and undergraduate students to take an in-depth look at the brains of rat mothers and find out what makes them tick. “Our research is attempting to understand all of the changes that take place in the brain to convert a regular female into a supermom,” he shares. “The differences in the brains of mothers and non-mothers are numerous and significant, and I think we’re just scratching the surface of those differences with our studies to date.”
Put a scan of a mom’s brain and a scan of a non-mom’s brain side by side, and you’ll notice some differences. For starters, certain parts of a mom’s brain actually grow during pregnancy and during the postpartum period, leaving us slightly larger in specific areas—including those that deal with maternal motivation (hypothalamus), reward and emotion processing (substantia nigra and amygdala), sensory integration (parietal lobe), and reasoning and judgment (prefrontal cortex).
“The brains of female rats change dramatically during pregnancy,” Franssen says. “During pregnancy, a mother-to-be’s brain is bathed in hormones such as estrogen and progesterone that are evolutionarily designed to help prepare women for the rigors of motherhood.” He adds that research has found that “mother brains have larger neurons, more neuronal connections, and possibly an increased number of neurons.”
It’s only human
In today’s world, few people are living carefree lives. It’s a rat race out there, folks (pun intended), and the sheer amount of things we must accomplish in a day are overwhelming. This only increases with the arrival of a pregnancy. Not only do you have to keep up with your normal daily tasks—particularly if you’re working full time, as many first-time moms are—but you also have a smorgasbord of new tasks on your plate, from researching your insurance policy to rebalancing your budget to maintaining your health and diet.
Plus, “The brains of moms are rewiring during pregnancy,” Franssen notes. “As neurons get bigger and make more connections, some connections get briefly disconnected [or] rewired to the wrong place, leading moms to seem forgetful or scatterbrained at times.”
Over time, those temporary connection misfires add up to a new, improved, smarter brain. “Increased processing power … has a huge impact on memory,” shares Franssen. “Being a mother changed the brains of female rats enough that they were able to plan ahead to be sure that they had enough food and water to feed their pups.” Virgin and male rats didn’t show the same plan-ahead mentality.
“Mother rats are better at other types of memory too,” Franssen adds. “Mothers have been shown to be superior at finding food and remembering where that food is stored. Mothers are [also] better at non-spatial memory—such as identifying two different kinds of food—than virgin rats. To relate this to humans, moms are much better at finding their way around a grocery store than their non-mom counterparts … even if they can’t seem to remember which Shakespeare play ‘To be, or not to be’ came from.” It’s as if our brains know that nourishing our children (and perhaps even getting in and out of the grocery store in record time) is more important than recalling the trivial information we tend to blank on.
Research has shown that perhaps moms appear forgetful in some areas simply because their priorities have changed. We might forget those things that aren’t as important to us (whether we brushed our hair or unloaded the dishwasher), but when it comes to care for our kids, we’re spot-on. Pediatrician well-checks, feeding schedules, and daily bonding time are prioritized; less important tasks are pushed to the back burner.
Something else moms excel at: multitasking. Few people can conquer a bevy of tasks simultaneously like a mom can. Even on the simplest of days, we are constantly caring for at least two people at the same time—our own person and our child (or children). Our very thoughts are divided 100 percent of the time. As our schedules grow busier and children grow older, the more adept at multitasking we become.
Moms also tend to be the best organizers in the (non)business. Sure, our mail might be in a stack by the door (and the dishes piled up in the sink), but when it comes to time management, nobody can rock it like a mom can. And this typically comes into play during pregnancy, while our mommyhood is still in the planning stages—already you can see a mother preparing her life and schedule for the addition of a new baby. As our brains grow, so do our talents. (Another case in point? Search and rescue. Who is the one always able to find the missing shoe or know where baby’s favorite blanket is? That’s right: Mom.)
Past to present
Franssen says, “I think that the [reason] why moms are smarter can be answered through evolution and ancestry. Our great-great-great grandmothers must have successfully used their brainpower to plan for future needs, gather food, and protect their babies. Their ability to successfully care for their children has been passed down from generation to generation. Although the tasks might be different in today’s world, the results are the same.” For many of us, mothering is uncharted territory. It’s scary. It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. And the last thing we need is someone filling our head with the nonsense that our brains will suffer because we’ve created life. Empower yourself to believe that the opposite is true—and let’s do like those before us and rock this parenting thing. Moms are pretty smart folks, after all.