[Paleopsych] NYT: This Is Your Brain on Motherhood
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Sun May 8 14:58:16 UTC 2005
This Is Your Brain on Motherhood
New York Times, 5.5.8
By KATHERINE ELLISON
ANYONE shopping for a Mother's Day card today might reasonably linger
in the Sympathy section. We can't seem to stop mourning the state of
modern motherhood. "Madness" is our new metaphor. "Desperate
Housewives" are our new cultural icons. And a mother's brain, as
commonly envisioned, is impaired by a supposed full-scale assault on
sanity and smarts.
So strong is this last stereotype that when a satirical Web site
posted a "study" saying that parents lose an average of 20 I.Q. points
on the birth of their first child, MSNBC broadcast it as if it were
true. The danger of this perception is clearest for working mothers,
who besides bearing children spend more time with them, or doing
things for them, than fathers, according to a recent Department of
In addition, the more visibly "encumbered" we are, the more bias we
attract: When volunteer groups were shown images of a woman doing
various types of work, but in some cases wearing a pillow to make her
look pregnant, most judged the "pregnant" woman less competent. Even
in liberal San Francisco, a hearing last month to consider a pregnant
woman's bid to be named acting director of the Department of Building
Inspection featured four speakers commenting on her condition, with
one asking if the city truly meant to hire a "pregnancy brain."
But what if just the opposite is true? What if parenting really isn't
a zero-sum, children-take-all game? What if raising children is
actually mentally enriching for mothers - and fathers?
This is, in fact, what some leading brain scientists, like Michael
Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco, now believe.
Becoming a parent, they say, can power up the mind with uniquely
motivated learning. Having a baby is "a revolution for the brain," Dr.
The human brain, we now know, creates cells throughout life, cells
more likely to survive if they're used. Emotional, challenging and
novel experiences provide particularly helpful use of these new
neurons, and what adjectives better describe raising a child? Children
constantly drag their parents into challenging, novel situations, be
it talking a 4-year-old out of a backseat meltdown on the Interstate
or figuring out a third-grade homework assignment to make a model of a
black hole in space.
Often, we'd rather be doing almost anything else. Aging makes us cling
ever more fiercely to our mental ruts. But for most of us, our unique
bond with our children yanks us out of them.
And there are other ways that being a dedicated parent strengthens our
minds. Research shows that learning and memory skills can be improved
by bearing and nurturing offspring. A team of neuroscientists in
Virginia found that mother lab rats, just like working mothers,
demonstrably excel at time-management and efficiency, racing around
mazes to find rewards and get back to the pups in record time. Other
research is showing how hormones elevated in parenting can help buffer
mothers from anxiety and stress - a timely gift from a sometimes
compassionate Mother Nature. Oxytocin, produced by mammals in labor
and breast-feeding, has been linked to the ability to learn in lab
Rethinking the mental state of motherhood is reasonable after recent
years of evolution of our notion of just what it means to be smart.
With our economy newly weighted with people-to-people jobs, and with
many professions, including the sciences, becoming more
multidisciplinary and collaborative, the people skills we've come to
think of as "emotional intelligence" are increasingly prized by many
wise employers. An ability to tailor your message to your audience,
for instance - a skill that engaged parents practice constantly - can
mean the difference between failure and success, at home and at work,
as Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, may now realize.
To be sure, sleep deprivation, overwork and too much "Teletubbies" can
sap any parent's synapses. And to be sure, our society needs to do
much more - starting with more affordable, high-quality child care and
paid parental leaves - to catch up with other industrialized nations
and support mothers and fathers in using their newly acquired smarts
to best advantage. That's why some of the recent "mommy lit"
complaints are justified, and probably needed to rouse society to
action - if only because nobody will be able to stand our whining for
Still, it's worth considering that the torrent of negativity about
motherhood comes as part of an era in which intimacy of all sorts is
on the decline in this country. Geographically close extended families
have long been passé. The marriage rate has declined. And a record
percentage of women of child-bearing age today are childless, many by
It's common these days to hear people say they don't have time to
maintain friendships. Real relationships take a lot of time and work -
it's much more convenient to keep in touch by e-mail. But children
insist on face time. They fail to thrive unless we anticipate their
needs, work our empathy muscles, adjust our schedules and endure their
relentless testing. In the process, if we're lucky, we may realize
that just this kind of grueling work - with our children, or even with
others who could simply use some help - is precisely what makes us
grow, acquire wisdom and become more fully human. Perhaps then we can
start to re-imagine a mother's brain as less a handicap than a keen
asset in the lifelong task of getting smart.
Katherine Ellison is the author of "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood
Makes Us Smarter."
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