As your bump grows, your brain is busy forging a brand-new skill which gives you a greater ability to respond to his needs and build a loving bond.
MEET THE EXPERT
Erika Barba- Müller is a psychologist, neuroscientist and researcher, and a mum.
Ever hunted all over the house for your keys, only to find them nestled in the fridge while your sandwich is sitting on the roof of the car? Since the beginning of time, women have wondered if pregnancy does something peculiar to our minds, landing us with the so-called ‘baby brain’ that leaves our thought processes a little addled, and our keys regularly lost. Now scientists have the proof to back up what we’ve always suspected: pregnancy really does change your brain. And that scattiness is just a side effect of an amazing alteration as the structure of your grey matter adjusts to give you skills that will make you a better mum.
“We found that pregnancy changes the grey matter volume within the brain,” says neuroscientist and mum Erika Barba-Müller, co-author of a new report that is making waves in the scientific community. Over the course of five-and-a-half years, her team of neuroscientists compared magnetic resonance images of first-time mums and their partners, and a control group of women who were not and had never been pregnant, and men. Everyone had their brains scanned, with the mums being tested before conception, soon after they had given birth and again two years later.
And the results were fascinating. Sometime between the first and second of these high-resolution brain scans, the mums all experienced a significant reduction in their grey matter. So what’s going on? “Usually, when you learn or acquire a new ability, we would expect to find an increase in grey matter volume,” explains Erika. “But sometimes, a reduction in grey matter volume improves the connections between regions of the brain. And we suspect that’s what’s going on here.” Take your teenage years, for example: “During adolescence, you experience similarly dramatic hormone changes as well as a simultaneous decrease in grey matter volume,” continues Erika. “But you don’t get less clever. The brain of an adult is far more sophisticated than that of a child. In fact, a study has found that adolescent grey matter reduction corresponds to a re-organisation of the brain in order to make it more efficient.”
So while you are pregnant, unnecessary pathways—or synapses—in your brain are pruned to make way for faster, better connections. It’s almost as if your brain is being spring cleaned, just as you might declutter your home in preparation for your baby’s arrival. And Erika and her team think that these changes make us more emotionally mature. While examining the brain scans of the pregnant women, the team found that the most profound changes happened in the parts of the brain that support social and emotional understanding. Specifically, it was those areas that deal with figuring out what others are feeling that were affected. “It may be that the changes in your brain aren’t just making you more mature, they’re also making you better at the specific job of being a mother—better at empathising with, and reading, your baby’s feelings,” explains Erika. “As a new mum, part of your job is to try to figure out whether your baby’s cry has to do with hunger, pain or sleep.” And the changes in your brain may give you superpowers to be able to do exactly this.
Clever, huh? But there’s more. When the researchers showed each mum a photo of her baby while scanning her brain, the results were extraordinary. “The parts of the brain that had experienced the most reduction in grey matter volume also lit up the most in response to the picture,” says Erika. And the team found that the level of structural brain change could accurately predict the quality of a mother’s attachment to her baby too: the greater the reduction, the better the bond.
Experiencing a few moments of scattiness is a small price to pay for such superpowers. “All these benefits might indeed come with a slight decrease in other functions and capabilities,” says Erika, and the hippocampus, where some of the changes take place, is linked to memory. But it’s only a minor downside—when the mums in the study took memory tests, they showed such a small reduction in their score during pregnancy and after birth that it was not considered statistically significant.
So the next time you find yourself looking everywhere for your keys, smile. Your brain is busy, evolving to give you a greater ability to be able to read your baby’s mind, respond to his needs and build a loving bond.