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Rethinking a Stereotype: Baby Brain May Actually Make Moms Smarter

The Short of It

Despite the well-known stereotype that "baby brain" makes moms scatty, researchers have found evidence to the contrary.

The Lowdown

I'll never forget walking out of Target a week after having my daughter and standing, helplessly, in the middle of the parking lot for a good 10 minutes, trying to remember where on Earth I'd parked my car.

This type of new parent-induced fog has come to be known as "baby brain," although researchers have never really found enough information to support its existence. Now there's evidence that there may actually be some positive cognitive effects that come with having a child.

"When a woman becomes pregnant and a new mother, she has much more to think about," Katherine Tombeau Cost, a psychology researcher at the University of Toronto, told Quartz. "Any person can tell you that when you're thinking about more, you start to feel as though you're not feeling about anything particularly well. You feel more stressed and more overwhelmed and more as though you're falling behind."

Tombeau Cost looked at the scientific literature regarding the effects of pregnancy on cognition and noticed that there was a lack of objective evidence of reduced cognition. What she did find were some benefits—at least in studies involving lab rats. A study conducted by Craig Kinsley, a psychology professor at the University of Richmond, found that rats posess improved foraging abilities shortly after giving birth, something Kinsley said makes sense since foraging increases a rat's offspring's chances for survival.

Kinsley said he decided to conduct the research after watching his own wife's behavior shortly after giving birth. "I noticed my wife becoming much more efficient and able to do everything she did before, plus take care of a new baby," he told Quartz. "I put these ideas into the lab and started testing them, and it was just like finding a gold mine."

Tombeau Cost said she was then inspired by Kinsley's work to look at spatial memory in humans. She didn't find any impairment or improvement, but she said this is probably because foraging isn't an overly useful skill for human mothers. Rats are single mothers who leave their infants at home to forage for food. But humans are different. "You also have your own parents and siblings and people in your community, " said Tombeau Cost. "Your best friend who says, 'I'll bring over a lasagna,' or something like that."

The Upshot

Tombeau Cost said it will take several major studies to definitively establish the effects of pregnancy and motherhood on the human brain. And while women may report memory lapses during pregnancy, she says it's important to do larger experiments to test the conclusion and examine any positive cognitive abilities that come with pregnancy.

"You're about to do some very demanding work," she said. "So the idea of 'baby brain,' and that the mother would become impaired, doesn't make much sense."

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