If you've had a baby or have friends who've recently popped out a bundle of screaming, pooping joy, you may be familiar with "mommy brain" — a phenomenon wherein pregnant women and new mothers experience drastic losses of memory and overall brain fog in the months leading up to and following childbirth. The folk wisdom is that motherhood turns the brain into a pile of mashed banana for a few months, before it bounces back to its old self. The realities of pregnancy's and motherhood's affects on the brain, however, are far more complicated than that — and recent research indicates that pregnancy reshapes our brains in ways more far-reaching and permanent than we'd ever thought before. The good news? A lot of these alterations are, frankly, kind of awesome.
Why does having a baby change our brains? We're still figuring that out — but many of the changes appear to be due to the massive hormonal changes that occur in our bodies when we carry a child. Some of the brain changes have also clearly developed in order to help mothers cope and bond with their new children.
The idea that a mother's brain endures a few months of bizarre fogginess (which, in reality, is probably due to sleep deprivation rather than hormones) and then "snaps back" to its previous pre-baby incarnation is as unrealistic as all those celebrity mothers claiming they lost 50 pounds of pregnancy weight by just chanting and lifting baby bottles out of the fridge. But rather than bemoaning the way motherhood changes our brains, we should be celebrating.
So new moms, welcome to your new post-pregnancy brain. It's actually seriously cool.
1. Your Brain Literally Becomes Bigger
People who believe that old line about motherhood making women become flaky can go get bent. It turns out that, in reality, the amount of gray matter in a woman's brain increases a small amount after she gives birth. She'll see particular growth in areas that will be of use during motherhood (which we'll get to later), but the general result is a definite increase in size.
2. You're More Prone To Obsessive Behavior
The parts of the brain that regulate patterns and decision-making are a few of the areas that get a gray-matter boost after birth. Why? Most likely because it helps women regularly monitor and care for their kid. This boost also results in an increased likelihood of obsessive behaviors: 11 percent of postpartum women surveyed in a 2013 study reported feeling obsessive about certain things, like cleaning surfaces, checking their baby's breathing, and worrying about hurting them.
3. You Can Better Cope With Stress
The amygdala is the part of the brain linked to both pleasure and fear — and it not only grows significantly in size after a woman gives birth; it stays enlarged for the rest of her life. A big amygdala doesn't make you paranoid, though — rather, the amygdala plays a key role in how the body emotionally responds to huge stresses, like trauma (or, say, suddenly being responsible for a tiny human being). Having a bigger amygdala helps women cope with the huge pressures of raising a child, as well as bond with them emotionally.
It's not universal, though: A study found that the biggest change in amygdala size happened in women who seriously bonded with their babies and couldn't stop gushing about them.
4. You're High On Love
There's a very real scientific reason why mothers don't just abandon their babies on the side of a mountain every time they manage to somehow poo on the ceiling. Childbirth intensely sensitizes the dopamine network of the brain, which is the system that produces feelings of love and happiness. It's formally called the "maternal dopaminergic reward system" (if you want to get catchy). A 2015 discussion in The Atlantic revealed that an MRI scan of the brain of a mother bonding with her infant looks a lot like the MRI scan of someone who is falling in love: Both events trigger your brain to release the same shower of feel-good chemicals that basically tint everything rosy.
5. You Have A Sharper Sense Of Smell
This is just weird. Part of the "neurogenesis," or stimulation of new cells, that occurs in the brains of women who've just given birth is focused exclusively on one thing: developing a truly superior sense of smell. The process seems to be kick-started by the arrival of prolactin, a hormone related to a woman's ability to express milk. Scientists think this might be because women have always needed to be able to distinguish and delight in their own baby's particular smell — especially in the past, when babies were more likely to be raised in communal groups.
6. You Have Better Memory And Spatial Awareness
If you've had kids, you can officially tackle that complex 3-D modeling project with confidence — because having a child improves the brain's plasticity, increasing memory and spatial awareness. It's because the postpartum brain's hippocampus — which creates our memory — gets a boost in gray matter. So, far from inducing brain fog, having a baby actually strengthens women's cognitive capacity and ability to retain information in their brain.
7. You're At Increased Risk of Alzheimer's Disease
The brain changes that happen to mothers aren't all good news, though. The increased flow of hormones, particularly estrogen, that occurs during pregnancy might make mothers more vulnerable to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's later in life. Motherhood might help fight some brain-related degeneration, however. We aren't exactly sure about why, what warning signals it sets off, or how we can prevent it — but scientists are on the case.
But overall, the ways motherhood rewires your brain are awesome. So don't worry about the baby fog believers — instead, stay busy enjoying your new superpowers (okay, maybe having a keen sense of smell isn't always a superpower...like when there's a dirty diaper around).
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