Recent research published in the New Scientist suggests that there is no such thing as ‘baby brain’. It seems that the muddled-headed forgetfulness that women often report during pregnancy and after having children has no foundation in neuroscience.
According to this latest research, there are some slight temporary effects on women’s brains during late pregnancy and in the immediate post-partum period. Lab tests (which I am hoping refers to questions and answers undertaken on appropriately comfy chairs with frequent loo breaks and not to rooms full of heavily pregnant women with wires coming out of their heads!) reveal a slight temporary dip in women’s verbal memory during the third trimester of pregnancy.
For a short time, this makes it just a little harder to recall lists or string complex sentences together. This might explain a woman at 8 months’ pregnant momentarily forgetting her own date of birth, for example (to use a personal experience).
Other than that, being pregnant or recently having given birth has no demonstrable impact – positive or negative – on a woman’s cognitive abilities.
So why do I find myself simultaneously annoyed and delighted by these new findings?
For centuries, doctors and scientists have been assessing women’s brain capacity and intellectual contribution to society in terms of our reproductive organs. Take a gander through the medical texts of the 18th and 19th centuries and not only are women designated as illogical, over-emotional and unfit for decision-making but the cause is clearly attributed to our pesky reproductive organs (the origin of the word ‘hysteria’ is ‘wandering womb’). Women’s brains and sexual bits were seen as directly linked, with women who didn’t have enough sex at risk of becoming mentally ill (and women who had too much sex also diagnosed as mentally ill). Even into the 20th century, scores of eminent scientists publicly opposed giving women in Britain the vote due to our proven womb-induced psychological inadequacies.
Given that track record, you will forgive me for being sceptical about any scientific research that assesses women’s brainpower in terms of our reproductive activity.
But the real nub of the matter for me is about who to believe. If there is no scientific basis for ‘baby brain’ then why do so many women report experiencing it? Is this just another case of science telling women that what we think and feel and experience is not real or valid – the science says we are wrong (aka muddle-headed and irrational)?
Just because ‘baby brain’ might not be caused by changes in the brain doesn’t make it any less real. The fact that so many new mothers report forgetfulness and incompetence at simple tasks (like finishing sentences or remembering phone numbers) could have a variety of explanations when you look at it in the real life context of the changes that accompany the arrival of a baby – rather than assessing it in controlled-conditions laboratories.
A new baby brings with him/her an avalanche of new stuff to remember, new paraphernalia to choose, buy and master (and then wash or get rid of). At the same time, babies take us out of our established routines, removing those cues and prompts that have hitherto reminded us to do certain things. There is one hell of a lot going on. Hardly surprising that in those circumstances a new mum might forget things that previously she would have remembered.
And then there is the sleep deprivation. We know that sleep deprivation has an effect on the brain similar to alcohol – it makes our reactions slower and our judgement becomes less predictable. Given that 1 in 3 babies don’t regularly sleep through the night before their first birthday, that’s a lot of mildly dazed and confused mums!
But for me, one of the most important reasons that a woman might report having ‘baby brain’ is the crisis of confidence experienced by so many women after having a baby or taking a break from work to stay at home with children.
Much of looking after babies and small children is, in essence, a never-ending sequence of menial tasks repeated again and again at unpredictable times of day and night (not dissimilar to well-researched forms of torture). It’s hard to feel like a valuable member of society with an important intellectual contribution to make when your days are spent wiping food and poo from orifices and floors and reading the same story book again and again and again and AGAIN MUMMY!!
So could ‘baby brain’ just be an expression of new mums putting themselves down (“I’m so useless I can’t even remember to…”)? Because it’s hard to value yourself intellectually when no intellectual or economic value is placed on the tasks that take up most of your day. Society doesn’t value our maternal-domestic contribution so we reassess ourselves as slightly useless to fit in with that belief set and shrink from new challenges?
In which case, ironically, the scientific evidence that ‘baby brain’ doesn’t exist is something to celebrate. Having children doesn’t actually make you a moron, it can just make you feel like one!
We need to get the word out to all new mums – you are not stupid! You brain is just fine and you have just as much to contribute as you always had!
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