Tuesday, March 03, 2009
The Ultimate Brain Boost
When I was pregnant, the joke was that, of course, I'd be addled. "The first thing to go is the brain," I'd chuckle with my friends. In fact, one of my friends just this week quipped that a mom loses one-third of her brain with every birth. Let's see...that would make me a complete airhead!
However, the Bible urges us to have children as a vital part of exercising dominion in a complex, dangerous, broken world. So - from a scientific point of view, does childbearing and child-rearing help or hinder in the work of dominion?
Certainly the introduction of a new, totally dependent being into a marriage relationship increases the demands on the parents and on the relationship exponentially. Our baby's physical survival is completely dependent on how well we notice, nurture and protect that child. So are we as new moms adjusting to radically elevated and emotionally charged levels of responsibility or are we really getting dumber?
According to a recent book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, by Katherine Ellison, the possibility of getting dumber could not be farther from the truth. Ellison tracks changes in the female brain following pregnancy and the care-giving of early childhood. Her findings fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of feminism.
The Mommy Brain research shows that pregnant women actually gain brain cells - something thought to be impossible for human brains beyond the childhood growth curve. Those new cells tend to be in the sensory regions designated to hearing and smelling, which validates the older conventional wisdom marveling over the sensory acuity of moms. "Be careful, your mom has eyes in the back of her head," isn't far off. It's just that she has supercharged ears rather than a third eye.
Ellison also details an astonishing increase in hormones and neurotransmitters which promote hyper-awareness, altruism, emotional bonding, cheerfulness, empathy and social connectivity. This chemical cocktail is self-perpetuating. The more a person exercises the capabilities opened by these substances, the more the body makes. So the extra smarts become permanent.
Even more, the chemical changes are often echoed in an involved father. Science isn't certain how it happens, but it seems connected with pheromones given off by the mother, with skin-to-skin contact with the infant, and with exercising parental nurturing. So it seems parental smarts can be both contagious and cultivated!
Professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Michael Merzenich, contradicts me and my self-effacing friends. "I don't think there are a lot of better things you can do for your brain than have a child." Looks like God knows best, yet again. Parenting does indeed expand our capacity to exercise dominion.
The Mommy Brain is part of my background research for Launch-Proof Legacy, a workshop and book combination about parenting during the transition from nuclear family to extending family, about letting go of children and maintaining vital intergenerational relationships. Preview the workshop in the audio lecture, Quests & Homecomings.