The science of Mom Brain

Leslie Penkunas//March 22, 2019

The science of Mom Brain

Leslie Penkunas//March 22, 2019

I woke up to make coffee this morning in my one-cup brewer, and when I went to fill the reusable single-serve pod with coffee, I filled it with formula instead. I’ve left my phone on my nightstand more times than I care to admit in the last nine months. I’m constantly reminding my husband to remind me to do something later. I have no fewer than 10 lists of “Things to Do” on my desk and more often than not I walk into a room forgetting why I went in there in the first place.

How many of you have attributed your forgetful, foggy memory to the phenomenon known as Mom Brain?

When I first had my son, Mom Brain frustrated me, because I’d had a stellar memory prior to becoming a mom. I wouldn’t call it photographic, but there were times when someone may have asked, “Do you know if we’ve done a project like this in the past?” and I could tell them the year, date and page to look up. I maybe could give a client’s business address off the top of my head if I had been there enough times. And I was very good at remembering birthdays and people’s favorite things. I could have been a great right-hand man to a President at a state dinner, standing next him, whispering in his ear about what world leader he was about to meet next and a unique fact about her. Too bad this wasn’t my career path. Maybe my sheet thread count would be higher and I’d have several Louis Vuitton’s.

Post-birth, the tables have turned… just a little bit. My memory hasn’t done a complete 180, but I’d say it’s shifted like 30 degrees, maybe 40. And I know through conversations with other mothers that I am not the only one. I had a friend who, in her fog of Mom Brain, forgot she had a baby when she parked her car to go to the grocery store. She made it halfway across the parking lot before sprinting back to her car and retrieving the baby. No harm, no foul – the baby was fine. I could give countless examples of Mom Brain and am sure as you’re reading this you have a few stories to tell, yourself.

So what is Mom Brain? Just forgetfulness because moms are perpetually tired after having a baby? Partly. Sleep has a very important cognitive function on the body. There’s a reason our military uses sleep deprivation as a war tactic when it comes to questioning a prisoner; it weakens the defenses and the immune system, and can cause hallucinations and psychosis. According to healthline.com it is possible to die from lack of sleep, although rare (we’re talking like 10 days of literally no sleep). Of course, those circumstances are uncommon.

In May 2018, Psychology Today published an article explaining the good that happens when brain changes occur due to pregnancy. It detailed how “oxytocin — a hormone present in mothers during labor, pregnancy, and nursing — might play a role in keeping women from developing bad memories about the experience.”

This means that mothers have an automatic defense mechanism built into their system in a similar way trauma or abuse victims black out. Trauma victims often suppress memories into their subconscious so they can maneuver through life in a less painful way. During gestation, brain changes often allow mothers to forget the suffering during pregnancy and labor, inherently giving them a higher chance of reproducing again. Biology has tricked us into going back into the fire voluntarily.

Studies are showing Mom Brain is actually a result from hormonal and scientific changes to the body during the process of reproduction, beginning with pregnancy and lasting long, sometimes permanently, after a female gives birth. Dr. Ronald E. Dahl, director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a study focused on the size and structure of a woman’s brain during and after pregnancy in 2016. Gestation changes a woman’s brain, varying the dimensions and proportions of the organ devoted to observing the feelings, according to a May 11, 2018 New York Times article. The more pronounced the brain changes, the higher mothers scored on a measure of emotive attachment to their infants. In short, mothers lose gray matter in their brains through pregnancy.

The really cool part about the Dahl study though is that while mothers sacrifice gray matter in their brains, it is done in a way to redirect their attention and focus to their infants. It’s a survival strategy for their young. What’s even cooler is that a 2017 scientific report produced by nature.com shows that nonhuman mothers hormonally process their brain in a very similar way.

“It has long been argued that early motherhood involves an emotional rebalancing that moderates reactivity to negative or aversive environmental events, while simultaneously promoting attention to infant signals and the ability to attend sensitively to infant needs,” the study reported.

A summary: even studies from rats to elephants show that THEY get Mom Brain, too.

So, yes, mothers – Mom Brain is a real thing with real science behind it. You’re not just a muddled, washed out version of your old self. You have instincts as a mammal. Mom Brain means you’re looking out for your kiddos…and being a good mom.
Carley Lucas is a working mother of one hysterically giggly 8-month-old. She, her son and her husband live in Central PA and firmly believe a household of laughter is the best form of medicine for any situation.