- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

When actress Rachel Weisz forgot to thank her future husband after she won the Academy Award this year, she blamed it on her upcoming motherhood.

“I think it’s because I’m pregnant, my brain is a bit like porridge,” she said of her onstage lapse.

But science suggests that Miss Weisz’s brain — as with other human mothers — is actually becoming more focused, more attuned, more resourceful and more complex as she prepares for the mother of all multitasks: raising a child.

“Motherhood can be tremendously strengthening to you as a person,” says Katherine Ellison, author of “The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter.”

Mrs. Ellison’s book, which is grounded in scientific studies, finds “five attributes of a baby-boosted brain.”

Motherhood, she writes, appears to be linked to enhanced perception, with greater sensitivity in smell, vision, hearing and physical contact. “Mom radar,” as Mrs. Ellison puts it.

Mothers are also likely to become efficient and resourceful multitaskers who are strongly motivated to set and fulfill goals. Other hallmarks of motherhood are improved social skills and emotional intelligence, which allows them to reduce stress and encourage resilience.

Many of these maternal behaviors are seen in rodent studies, in which mother rats frequently outperform “virgin” female rats.

Rat mothers are focused, efficient, fast and successful in their behaviors because they are “looking out not just for Number 1, but also for Numbers 2, 3, 4, and so forth,” Mrs. Ellison surmises.

Still, the question arises: If it’s true that motherhood turns most women into some kind of supermom, where did everyone get the idea that childbearing turned women into nitwits?

Even mothers themselves chime in about their “mommy brains”: In a posting called the “Dull-Witted Mom Syndrome” on the Berkeley Parents Network in California, one mother laments how she “lost a lot of IQ points to motherhood.” Another mother writes how she is “just starting to get that ‘sharp wit’ back,” now that her children are ages 2 and 4.

New mothers who undergo brain-scan studies with neuroscientist Jeffrey Lorberbaum at the Medical University of South Carolina, come to the same conclusion, he tells Mrs. Ellison. “Universally, without exception, they say their brains have turned to Jell-O,” he says.

There have been attempts to analyze “porridge brain,” as maternal ditziness is called in Britain. In 2001, British neuroscientists Matthew Brett and Sallie Baxendale wrote a paper on a new disorder they called “gestational memory impairment.”

Other studies have found that pregnancy can temporarily shrink a woman’s brain, and pregnant women and new mothers can be distracted or falter on memory tests.

In addition, there is ample anecdotal evidence that pregnancy and new motherhood bring difficulties in concentration, deterioration of expressive language skills, mental fogginess, forgetfulness, confusion, disorientation and poor concentration.

But Mrs. Ellison says scientific evidence suggests that these changes are not evidence of a loss, but signs of a transformation into a better brain. Mothers’ brains not only return to their normal size within months of birth, but have enhanced capacity, she writes.

Rat studies show that the females’ brains go through a powerful transition during pregnancy and birth, says University of Richmond professor and neuroscientist Craig Howard Kinsley, who has often collaborated on rodent studies with Kelly G. Lambert, chair of the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College.

It’s like a reorganization of the brain, with growth in some parts of the brain and structural changes or remodeling in other parts, he says.

Any cognitive lapses are a trade-off for a better functioning and focused brain later on, he says.

“What does a female have to do before and after she’s pregnant,” he asked in an interview with The Washington Times. “Well, she has to do everything she did before — plus all these new sets of behaviors, to manage this very expensive [new] investment.”

As for the perception of maternal ditziness, “bias” is a likely explanation, says Mrs. Lambert, who teaches behavioral neuroscience and psychology. “We always lose our keys,” she says. “But when we lose them when we’re pregnant, we say it’s pregnancy brain.”

Another likely culprit is probably sleep deprivation, adds Mrs. Ellison, citing a study that finds that primary caregivers — i.e., mothers — lose 700 hours of sleep in their baby’s first year.

Anyone with such a sleep deficit can go from “from Sleepy to Dopey,” writes the working mother of two.

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