There is a story, frequently told, about what happens to women’s minds after they give birth to children. The phenomenon has been christened “baby brain,” and a 2014 piece from The Telegraph describes it as “pregnancy-induced fog,” with symptoms including forgetfulness, oversensitivity, and an inability to focus on logical tasks.
Not so fast, say scientists. There’s a growing body of research that suggests women may actually get a positive cognitive boost from having children. One study in particular, work by University of Richmond researchers recently detailed in New Scientist, suggests that motherhood improves women’s strategic thinking, judgment, and empathy. This could be a boon—not a curse—in the workplace.
Craig Kinsley, a University of Richmond psychology professor, has found that the foraging abilities of rats increase shortly after giving birth. This makes sense logically—new mommy rats need better foraging skills to keep themselves and their new children alive. Kinsley told Quartz that previous research didn’t properly evaluate which specific aspects of cognition change with childbirth.
Kinsley said he was inspired to do his work by observing his wife after she gave 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 said. “I put these ideas into the lab and started testing them and it was just like finding a gold mine.”
Another study, published by scientists with Brigham Young University earlier this year, gave mental tests to 21 mothers before and after the birth of their children. The researchers administered identical tests to 21 women who were not pregnant and had never had children. Both groups performed similarly in memory, attention span, thinking, and organizational and spatial skill. The mothers, however, had said they expected to perform poorly.
“I was surprised at how strong the feeling was that [the mothers] weren't performing well,” said psychology professor Michael Larson. “This feeling of, ‘I really am doing badly right now’ exists despite the objective evidence that they aren't.”
Researchers emphasize that a lot more research into the “baby brain” phenomenon needs to be done. That women are underrepresented as subjects in biomedical research does not help. “Science is often perceived as a body of facts,” one researcher told Quartz, “but in fact it’s more of a method to try and build a body of facts.”