They Say: Caregiving Can Change Your Brain


whitelab-rats-437p300wAnd not into the short-term memory-impaired mushball we refer to as “mom brain.” Nope, this is actually good.

Researchers introduced 14 female rats that had never been around mothers or babies to unrelated, unknown baby rats. Within about a week, seven of the rats were exhibiting maternal behaviors with the babies, and eventually most of the rats did so. Brain analyses of the rats found that they grew new cells which ended up in the olfactory region, which could be involved in recognizing your offspring over another by smell. There was no change in the brains of the rats that didn’t have exposure to the babies, or, interestingly, those that were exposed to the baby rats but ignored them.

These changes typically occur during pregnancy and nursing, but this study showed it was the act of behaving like a parent, not biologically being one, that created the changes in the rats’ brains.

There’s a lot of misplaced outrage in the comments of the Double XX story by readers taking it to mean some sweeping generalization that everyone should have kids because they’ll end up loving them anyway, or whatever. I really, really don’t think that’s the case — both Sara Elizabeth Richards, who wrote the article linked here, and the researchers quoted seemed to think it simply let people know that if they were worried they would make good mothers because they aren’t really that maternal, the researcher pointed to the idea that in fact, they’d be likely to do just fine.

It’s also somewhat of a slap in the face to a particularly ugly anti-adoption attitude out there, the idea that “I could never care for another woman’s child.” That view reveals nothing more to me than an overweening ego, that somehow if the child doesn’t share your wonderful genes, it’s “less than.” But personally, one thing I knew for sure almost as soon as I met my first child was that I would love her the same if she hadn’t grown inside me for nine months. It’s behaving like a parent that makes you one, not sharing some random strings of DNA.