Many an overtired and forgetful new mom has joked that she feels like she’s losing her mind, but according to a new study, this might not actually be an exaggeration. Research recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that pregnant women’s brains really do get smaller. But before you get too depressed about your potentially vanishing IQ, you should know that your incredible shrinking brain knows exactly what it’s doing — and it’s for the benefit of you and your baby.
In the study, women’s brains were scanned prior to conception and after giving birth, and results were the same whether a mom conceived naturally or through in vitro fertilization: They lost gray matter in parts of the brain that control feelings, beliefs, and intentions. Fathers’ brains were studied as well but showed no change, perhaps unsurprisingly. (No brain loss or labor pains for Dad? Hmmph.)
Luckily, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Because while one would assume that losing parts of your brain would result in a corresponding drop in brain function, that’s apparently not the case: According to scientists in the Netherlands and Spain, the loss of gray matter appears to make those areas of the brain function more efficiently — not less — improving mothers’ ability to interpret what their babies need and how they’re feeling, and ultimately strengthening the bond between mom and baby.
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Co-lead study author Elseline Hoekzema, a senior brain scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, explained it to CNN as a sort of biological streamlining, saying, “Loss of volume does not necessarily translate to loss of function. Sometimes less is more.”
The loss, she added, could “represent a fine-tuning of synapses into more efficient neural networks.”
Well, hey! Look at that! We’re more efficient than we realized (even if we feel anything but). Guess we’ve been using the term “mom brain” all wrong. In all seriousness, though, it’s just amazing to think of all the highly complex things our bodies are intuitively doing all the time, especially when it comes to pregnancy and birth. And new discoveries are being made all the time!
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Of course, it’s still tempting to wonder if we might possibly be losing something important with all that disappearing gray matter … like, maybe, the ability to remember where the car keys are? One of the areas affected does have to do with memory, so you never know — but there’s no definitive proof yet. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the generalized exhaustion and stress of new motherhood as an excuse for your absentmindedness anyway. After all, the change is good for you!
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