New parents likely know well the concept of "mommy brain" — the notion that forgetfulness and memory loss accompany the birth of a baby, implying mom is so overwhelmed she suffers cognitive decline. But "daddy brain" isn't really a neologism in the same way, which attests to the way that "mommy brain" can sometimes evoke a sexist stereotype of the doddering, forgetful new mother.
Yet according to scientists, mommy brain isn't actually a real thing — at least, not in the way our culture conceives of it. Research into how motherhood affects the human female brain reveals that this idea is mostly fiction.
"The idea that motherhood is wrought with memory deficits and is characterized by a brain that no longer functions well is scientifically just not so."
Still, it persists in public discourse. For example, Meghan Markle telling Kate Middleton she had "baby brain" became a topic of fascination after the account was published in Prince Harry's memoir.
While there are certainly hormonal and cognitive changes that can cause mental fogginess, forgetfulness or trouble concentrating during motherhood, it's possible that this "mommy brain" — an event estimated 80 percent of postpartum women say they experience — could be symptoms of other underlying factors. Women scientists who study this are putting out a call to action to change the narrative around "mommy brain" and urge a "rebrand" of an inadequately studied area in maternal health to steer it away from its sexist undertones.
"The idea that motherhood is wrought with memory deficits and is characterized by a brain that no longer functions well is scientifically just not so," researchers wrote in a commentary in the journal JAMA Neurology last month. "While complaints of mental fogginess should be taken seriously, it is likely the inescapable narrative of mommy brain contributes to these subjective reports, focusing pregnant women's (and researchers') attention on what may be a small decrease in particular aspects of cognitive function, while at the same time ignoring the faculties that are gained during this period of life."
Indeed, researchers say some of the scientific community has latched on to the idea of "mommy brain" as it pertains to cognitive decline, and have spent too much time focusing on it, which could be inadvertently disregarding some of the remarkable changes that actually happen in a woman's brain during pregnancy and after birth.
"We really wanted to push back in a public way against that narrative of stupidity during pregnancy, and say that we haven't looked to see all of the cognitive benefits that could be attained during this period."
"We know from the animal literature and from some human studies that actually there are a lot of cognitive benefits to pregnancy," Bridget Callaghan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the paper, told Salon. "If you look at the animal literature, there are lots of studies showing that moms become much better predators, much better protectors of their young, they're able to catch food in multiple locations and remember where the food was stored, and all of those abilities get massively enhanced during pregnancy and the postpartum period."
Callaghan said that the human narrative around "mommy brain" does not reflect what animal studies have shown.
"The idea that you just become stupid during pregnancy, doesn't fit with this idea that we do need to acquire these new skills," Callaghan said. "So we really wanted to push back in a public way against that narrative of stupidity during pregnancy, and say that we haven't looked to see all of the cognitive benefits that could be attained during this period."
"Why don't we focus on the research on that, and at the same time, why don't we try to understand what is really underlying this true phenomenon of mommy brain," Callaghan continued.
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Currently, there is limited scientific literature exploring the changes in a human female's brain during pregnancy and after giving birth. While research has increased over the last five to 10 years, Jodi Pawluski, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Rennes in France who co-authored the study with Callaghan, told Salon that science still has a long way to go.
"If you actually compare the literature on what we know about mothers and the brain, and adolescence and the brain, we've neglected this area of research significantly," she said. The comparison between adolescence, and matrescence — a term used to describe the physical, emotional, and hormonal transition — is important as scientists suspect there are similar changes happening in the brain during both life transitions; for example, gray matter changes.
"We've neglected this area of research significantly."
In 2016, a study published in Nature Neuroscience found that gray matter shrunk in the brains of mothers in areas that are involved in processing and responding to social signals. Two years later, the women who underwent MRI scans for the study were imaged again and researchers found that gray matter loss still remained — except in the hippocampus. Pawluski said media attention around studies like these can often focus on the idea that something is lost, without exploring what perhaps could have been gained, or that the loss could be a way to "fine tune" and make the brain more efficient in motherhood.
"It seems counterintuitive to have a loss during a time when so many things are happening. You're essentially learning how to parent, but I always think we forget when we talk about this decrease in gray matter volume, we forget to talk about the function," Pawluski said. "So there's structure changes, like volume changes, and then there's functional changes or activity of the brain areas that are important to remember."
The new mothers had widespread gray matter volume increases, not decreases, in brain regions that are associated with empathy, social cognition, and the ability to multitask.
Despite a loss in gray matter, scientists also have observed increases in brain activity in other areas that are important for parenting. In 2020, one study looked at the brains of women immediately after giving birth and between 4 to 6 weeks postpartum. The results showed that the new mothers had widespread gray matter volume increases, not decreases, in brain regions that are associated with empathy, social cognition, and the ability to multitask.
"These structural changes occurring within only 4-6 weeks after delivery are reflective of a high degree of neuroplasticity and massive adaptations in the maternal brain," the authors wrote. "They may suggest a restoration of brain tissue following pregnancy and/or a substantial brain reorganization, possibly to accommodate a multi-faceted repertoire of complex behaviors associated with being a mother."
One study published in the journal Current Psychology sought to understand the prevalence of "mommy brain" by comparing the results of mothers and non-mothers taking the Attention Network Test (ANT), which measured a person's attention span. Notably, the researchers found that mothers performed just as well if not better than the women who took the test and had never been pregnant or had children. Notably, in the study, the mothers were 10 years older, making the results even more surprising, Valerie Miller, Valerie Tucker Miller, a Ph.D. student in Purdue University's Department of Anthropology department who led the study, told Salon.
"In the attention literature, you almost always see a slight decline with age, so I anticipated having to control for it just because mothers on average were 10 years older," Miller said. "But that didn't happen at all — they were the same and then slightly faster in executive control."
That's not to say that "mommy brain" in the context that people usually think about isn't real, as women consistently report it, but that there could be underlying environmental factors to it.
"If we were to take away the issue of sleep [deprivation], the issue of stress and all of the things in some kind of experimental model that would give us the best answer," Dr. Amanda Veile, an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University, told Salon. "[Maybe] it doesn't just have to do with mother and child, it has to do with how mothers' worlds change as they become mothers, how they interact with others, how they're treated, the density of social networks, the amount of support they receive — all of that is going to be important in terms of cognition."
Veile said if research focuses on mommy brain perhaps in the social context, it could lead to some kind of action. Ideally, that would mean providing "more support for mothers in the postpartum period, which we know that the US is woefully behind in among the wealthiest nations," Veile added.