‘Mommy brain' isn’t permanent, new study shows

  • 'Mommy brain' is a long-held perception by society
  • A new study found that mothers are just as attentive as non-mothers
  • Researchers also mentioned that mommy-brain may be a culture-bound phenomenon

We hear the phrase "mommy brain" being thrown around a lot to explain forgetfulness and diminished attention in mothers. However, in a new study testing the prevalence of mommy brain, it was found that mothers performed just as well – or even better – than women who had never been pregnant or had children.

The study was published in the journal Current Psychology.

The problem with postpartum attention and memory tests 

Many past studies have assessed the memories and attention spans of mothers soon after giving birth, but, according to the study’s lead author Valerie Tucker Miller, a PhD student in Purdue University's Department of Anthropology, there are a couple of problems with this, including:

"When you first have a child, you have sleep deprivation and a cascade of hormones that might be affecting attention and memory processes in the brain," notes a news release by the university.

Miller is currently studying the effects of motherhood on attention, memory and other psychological processes.

How the study was done

Miller incorporated a revised version of the Attention Network Test (ANT), called the ANT-R for the study. This test was used to compare reaction times among 60 mothers, all of whom were at least one year postpartum, and 70 non-mothers.

According to the results, mothers performed just as well as women who had never been pregnant or had children, and, in some instances, even better. Miller explained why she and her colleagues recruited mothers who were past the first year postpartum:

“We wanted to see the long-term effects of maternity. Overall, moms did not have significantly different attention than non-mothers, so we did not find evidence to support 'mommy brain' as our culture understands it. It's possible, if anything, that maternity is related to improved, rather than diminished, attentiveness."

Mixed-method study: Survey questions

Participants of the study were given survey questions such as: “How sleepy do you feel?” and “How do you think your attentiveness is?” The research team then used a seven-point scale to assess their responses and discovered that all participants’ perceived attention functioning was greatly associated with their tested attention scores, regardless of motherhood status.

"This means that women have accurate awareness of their cognitive state, and that their concerns regarding their perceived attentional functioning should be taken seriously," said co-author of the study Amanda Veile, an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue.  

"We also believe that 'mommy-brain' may be a culture-bound phenomenon, and that mothers will feel the most distracted and forgetful when they feel stressed, overextended and unsupported. Unfortunately, many US moms feel this way, especially now in the midst of economic and political instability and pandemic."

Mixed-method study: Computer test

The 130 women were also given a computer test that involved a cue box flashing for 100 milliseconds during the one segment, and 500 milliseconds during the next. According to Miller, the test measures response times provided scores for the three main networks of attention: 

  • The alerting network helps the brain prepare for incoming stimuli. 
  • The orienting network directs the brain's attention to something new. 
  • The executive control network helps resolve conflicting information.

The researchers found that mothers had similar alerting and orienting attention, as well as better executive control attention when compared to non-mothers in the study.

"Moms were not as distracted by those outside, incongruent items," Miller said. "It makes perfect sense that moms who have brought children into this world have more stimuli that need to be processed to keep themselves and other humans alive, and then to continue with all the other tasks that were required before the children."

The team plans to extend the scope of research by embarking on cross-cultural investigations, as they hope to further understand how narratives of motherhood and social support are potentially linked with maternal tested attention.

Mother’s brain may ‘grow’ postpartum

Turns out the brains of women show significant growth and function in many areas after giving birth. Dr Pilyoung Kim, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver who’s conducted extensive research on the subject, told The Cut that from a neuroscience perspective, studies have shown that some parts of a woman’s brain may actually grow after giving birth, particularly in support of their new role as a parent.

Another exploratory research study from 2010, published by the American Psychological Association, involved a comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after women gave birth, and findings revealed that their gray matter volume increased by a small, but significant, amount in various parts of the brain.

Could mommy brain actually be the superior brain? According to science, it may just be. 

READ | Give newborn to mom right away – after moving the electrodes

READ | SA still has a long way to go to reach global breastfeeding targets, says health minister

READ | Many moms-to-be are stressed, and it might affect baby's brain

Image: Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

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