The female brain is the new uterus

People tend to use the phrase "baby brain” in a mocking sense to refer to the myth that we lose the ability to think when we are pregnant. As a mother of three, I can definitely confirm it feels that way sometimes. But it is not true.

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., Nature Neuroscience.

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.

Couples before pregnancy, shortly after birth, and two years after birth. The coloured blocks represent grey matter thickness in female brains. We tend to assume that more is better. This assumption might lead us to think that less grey matter must mean less competence at theory of mind. However, the opposite is much more likely to be the case.

Studies on the adolescent brain suggest that, when it comes to grey matter thickness, less is more. A thinner layer of grey matter is related to better performance. What goes on in these regions during adolescence is most likely some sort of neural fine-tuning, which makes neural networks more functional and efficient. This then results in a more skilful cognitive, emotional and social behaviour. The study by Elseline Hoekzema's team provides evidence supporting the idea that a similar process happens to mothers during pregnancy too.

It seems our strong feelings and passionate beliefs have been validated. We can at last argue that a mother's brain is AMAZING. It is an organ that can feel, think, and perceive what somebody else's feels, thinks, and perceives with remarkable accuracy and speed.

A mother's brain deals with incredibly complex matters, as she is able to see the person behind each need, the reason behind the tears, the struggle behind the result. Even though sometimes it feels like we cannot do the simplest things, it’s because our brains are trying to do 5 easy and 3 complex things at the same time, all this while being severely sleep-deprived.

With a Nature Neuroscience paper to encourage us, today we should all say to (expectant) mothers: Embrace your Babybrain - it is there to serve you, your baby and the whole society!

To conclude, perhaps we should adapt that well-known phrase of birth activist Ina May Gaskin (in which she was talking about the uterus) and claim instead that “there is no other organ quite like the female brain. If men had such an organ, they would brag about it. And so should we.

Our uterus and our brain. Officially worth bragging about!

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