Can Motherhood Make You Smarter?

Can Motherhood Make You Smarter?

It was not too long ago that the I.Q. test was a routinely administered exercise in elementary and secondary schools. At that time (late seventies and early eighties), schools placed great faith in these magic numbers. Flag those above 125 and those below 90, teachers were told. And we did, dutifully assigning enrichment or remedial programs accordingly.
Those were the years when we worked within a narrow understanding of the brain’s potential. Content dictated everything from test scores to curriculum because the model of the brain we worked from defined intelligence as an innate capacity determined mainly by genetics. If the environment had some impact on intelligence, it did so in a minor capacity. You were either smart or you weren’t; and the label the test scores assigned each student was considered unimpeachable.

Thanks to a body of new research that surfaced within the last 30 years, school systems have dispensed with using the I.Q. test as mandatory assessment of a child’s potential. This new research reveals that the brain, like the cells in our body, is malleable and changeable. Intelligence is not an inborn, determined number or capacity; in fact, intelligence is created by the brain’s response to events in the environment.

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In short, you MAKE your intelligence. New experiences create new neural pathways in the brain. Each time the brain confronts a new event, it responds by creating new synaptic connections; in fact, all thinking processes are such connections and the more synapses are formed, the stronger and more capable the brain is rewired to metabolize new information.
Even an experience like pregnancy can rewire the brain and make it more intelligent. In contrast to the long held myth that pregnant women and young mothers lost not only their identities but their intelligence, new research suggests otherwise. In one study, a group of pregnant women were asked to assess their mental acuity in areas such as focus and memory. A significant number of these women identified themselves as “weaker” in these areas even though tests performed on their mental ability showed the reverse.
Why would these women see themselves as “weaker” when in fact they were not? Researchers suggest that most women have internalized the myth that being pregnant, staying home with the kids (being barefoot and pregnant) decrease mental and intellectual strength.

In her book, “The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood makes us Smarter” (2005), Katherine Ellison, who delayed motherhood until she turned 37, for fear that her intellectual life would be doomed by pregnancy, examines the changes that maternity brings to the brain. Her book explodes the myth that the maternal brain is a fuzzy one. Ellison presents several new research studies that have gone against the long-held belief that professional women act against their own intellectual interests by staying home with the kids.
Neuroscientists have found that during pregnancy, rats experienced a tremendous sprouting of new dendritic spines—the parts of neurons that reach out to form synapses. They found that soon after birth, female rats’ cognitive ability intensifies so much that nursing mother rats can locate and catch prey 3 times as quickly as virgin rats. In essence, neural pathways in the brains of mother rats have been remapped and rewired by the experience of pregnancy and motherhood.

The increased production of estrogen in the pregnant rat also has a pronounced effect on its brain. Estrogen has been shown to increase a mother’s ability to multi-task, an ability that is bolstered as well by the realities of child-care. Multi-tasking allows a woman to identify with several key roles and tasks so that she can function much more effectively within a particular frame of time; in effect, multitasking gives her greater flexibility in accommodating the needs of her social network.

The increased production of oxytocin and prolactin—two hormones that literally bathe the maternal brain—also helps to foster a relaxed intensity, promoting new neural pathways in the brain as mothers cope with the birth and nurture of each new child. In fact, oxytocin, released during pregnancy, labor and breast-feeding, is not just a maternal hormone; it is a neurotransmitter that has been linked with the abilitity to build trust and learn in lab animals.

The presence of babies and the demands placed on the mothers have a profound influence on the development of the maternal brains; learning to identify the needs of her young, absorbing information provided by their new babies, mothers have in effect immersed themselves in a new language and environment. This new learning leading to increased performance and efficiency can extend to other areas in life, including the workplace.

Even fathers and other caregivers can experience changes in the brain through involvement with childcare. Studies have shown that fathers and surrogate caregivers experience similar but smaller biochemical changes in the brain, specifically in prolactin and estrogen levels so well-documented in pregnant women.
The clashes between motherhood and intelligence, motherhood and professionalism seem an artificial construct that has prevented women from developing to their fullest potential. As women, we need to be comfortable enough with our own biology to accept it as an avenue towards personal and professional growth. We also need to purge ourselves of the view that we are limited in what we can do. Our brains are expansive and can accommodate much more than we think they can. Our bodies can do much more than we allow them to do. The limitation is not in what we have been given, but in what we are willing to make of that which we have been blessed.