Mom Superbrains

Cristen Conger

Increasingly, research suggests that moms may have special superpowers after all.

During pregnancy, many women experience a period of forgetfulness or absentmindedness nicknamed "mommy brain," and as I detailed in How Motherhood Works, those might be inconvenient symptoms of brain remodeling underway. In 2010, when some Yale scientists examined fMRI scans of new moms' brains, they discovered small but significant structural changes the hypothalamus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex -- areas specifically involved with motivation and reward. As I explain in the delightful video below, those alterations offer evidence that what we think of as "maternal instinct" might be neurologically hardwired into new mom's brains:

Speaking to Smithsonian magazine, mom brain researcher Adam Franssen of Longwood University explained how he thinks that moms not only have different, but also smarter, noggins. Longwood and his colleague Craig Kinsley of the University of Richmond have conducted multiple experiments on female rats and found a number of stark differences between those with and without offspring. On top of rat moms having larger neurons that sprout additional "neuronal branches" that speed up communication among brain cells, they're also:

  • Better at problem solving, as demonstrated in maze navigation tests.
  • Better at managing stress
  • Better at recognizing emotions
  • Better and more efficient at food foraging
  • Better at memory tasks, particularly for prospective memory (i.e. packing a raincoat in a child's backpack since there's a chance of afternoon rain)
  • Better at defending their offspring

Granted, these results are based off rat brains, but the implications for human moms are compelling. It makes sense that nature possibly sharpens new moms' brains to prepare them for what many call the toughest job in the world. What mom brain researcher and relatively new father Adam Franssen still wants to know though, he told Smithsonian, is how paternal brains can get a parenting boost as well.