Today we are going to talk about the actual baby brains.
We are called Babybrains because we love the brain of (expectant) mothers. People tend to use the word in a mocking sense, referring to the myth that we lose the ability to use our brains when we are pregnant. Some people think we never get our pre-baby brains back.
But that is not true. The brain during pregnancy changes. Yes, it does. But it does not become useless. It becomes amazingly useful and wonderful and crucial for our species' survival and wellbeing. These were my strong feelings, anyway. That is what I passionately believed. So, when my lovely ex-business partner Angi Pendleton suggested "Babybrains" for the company name, I jumped on it.
If you were not too busy with your Christmas shopping towards the end of last year, you might have noticed an interesting piece of news in the media. Pregnancy causes long term changes in brain structure (as reported by the Guardian on 19th December 2016). Intriguing as they were, we did not find the articles in the press to paint a satisfying picture, so we got in touch with the first author of the Nature Neuroscience paper and asked her for a copy of the full article.
Elseline Hoekzema replied with the grace and generosity of a pregnant woman. Within 24 hours of our request, a remarkable piece of history had landed on the Babybrains' computers. So now we can tell you the story with a little bit more detail (if you are interested in the full picture, please do get in touch.)
Elseline Hoekzema and her colleagues looked at the structure of female brain before getting pregnant and after pregnancy. They noticed that there was a remarkable difference. The principal changes concerned the thickness of grey matter, the outer part of the brain's cortex. These changes were located in a specific set of areas. The same set of areas has previously been connected to something called theory of mind.
From Hoekzema et al., 2016.
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself or others. In other words, it means being able to know that what you think are "thoughts," "beliefs,” "expectations," and "intentions." If you have theory of mind, you also understand that other people have thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and intentions just like yours.
What might seem counterintuitive is that mothers have a thinner layer of grey matter in the areas devoted to putting yourself in other people’s shoes. This is the case shortly after birth and also two years later and does not apply to men.
Brain structure changes pre-pregnancy, post pregnancy and two years later. The building blocks represent grey matter thickness. (Illustrations by Bianka Biernat).
A study on the adolescent brain show, when it comes to grey matter thickness, less is more: a thinner layer of grey cells goes together with better performance. These regions are likely experiencing some sort of neural dine-tuning, which makes neural networks more functional. This will then results in a more skilful cognitive, emotional and social behaviour. Now we have evidence supporting the idea that a similar process happens to mothers during pregnancy, too.
Now my strong feelings and passionate beliefs can go wild and feel completely validated when they argue that a mother's brain is AMAZING. It can feel what somebody else feels incredibly accurately and quickly. It can take others' point of view into consideration when making any decision. It can deal with complexities with insight and sensitivity. We should be in awe of it rather than mock it.
So, the woman's brain is the new uterus. To paraphrase Ina May Gaskin, if men had it, they would brag about it. And so should we.