You’ve probably heard about pregnancy brain. It’s that thing where pregnant women supposedly get all forgetful and start pouring orange juice in their coffee, forgetting to turn off their hair straightener, and leaving their purse at restaurants. Most women think pregnancy brain is a myth, and a sexist one at that. But new evidence suggests the phenomenon is real, but it doesn’t actually work the way we all think it does.
Researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona found that pregnancy actually causes the gray matter in women’s brains to shrink—and stay that way for as long as 2 years post-baby.
To figure this out, scientists used MRI scans to measure women’s brains and tracked their brain activity when looking at photos of their own babies. According to Science Magazine, they noticed gray matter loss in areas of the brain that control memory and social tasks. The brain changes were so consistent that a computer algorithm could predict with 100% accuracy whether a woman had been pregnant just from an MRI scan.
Losing gray matter sounds like a negative thing, but researchers said it could actually be a positive for new moms.
Lead study author Elseline Hoekzema told Science Magazine that similar changes take place during adolescence when “when neural networks are fine-tuned for more efficiency and more specialized functions.” The changes help women recognize their baby’s needs and streamline their tasks and priorities. They even tested women’s cognitive abilities before and after the study and found there was no pregnancy-associated loss of memory or verbal skills.
“We certainly don’t want to put a message out there along the lines of ‘pregnancy makes you lose your brain,’” Hoekzema said. “Gray matter volume loss can also represent a beneficial process of maturation or specialization.”
Basically, those pregnancy brain changes might just be the brain fine-tuning itself to prepare for the difficult task of motherhood and all the skills women must acquire in their baby’s earliest days and weeks.
More research is needed to confirm that, of course, but if you’ve ever had a baby you understand how significantly the process of becoming a parent alters everything in your life.
Suddenly, you’re focused on feedings every three hours and absorbing every inch of that new parenting book. You’ve got a million little tasks to think about, and the days seem that much shorter. It makes complete sense that pregnancy and motherhood would alter the actual wiring of our brain in order to help us keep up. They’ve always said moms are superheroes. Maybe our streamlined, weird-looking brains are our actual superpowers.