Ever wonder how your mother just seems to know when you're having a bad day and knows the perfect thing to say to make you feel better? Well, you may be responsible for her mind-reading superpower—or at least her pregnancy with you was. Pregnancy changes the physical structure of a woman's brain, making her better at the special skills needed for mothering, according to a new study published in Nature
Researchers followed 25 women, scanning their brains before they conceived, after the baby was born, and then again two years later. They found that the women's gray matter—the part of the brain that controls emotion and memory among other things—was significantly reduced during pregnancy and remained smaller even two years later. They concluded that the high levels of pregnancy hormones shrunk the women's brain tissue, altering the women's brains permanently.
Yep, "pregnancy brain," the thing women jokingly say makes them forgetful and weepy, is a scientific fact. But while brain shrinkage and the inability to keep it together during adorable diaper commercials may sound like a bad thing, these changes are totally normal and may serve a very important purpose for mothers, says Elseline Hoekzema, senior neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who led the study at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain.
These changes allow the brain to become more focused and specialized, presumably preparing the woman for the particular tasks of motherhood, Hoekzema explains. (It's the same process that happens during puberty, she adds, allowing the brain to specialize in adult skills.) What skills do you sharpen during pregnancy? Things like being better able to understand what others are feeling and better anticipating their needs—crucial skills for any new (or older) mom.
"This might manifest as an improvement in the mother's ability to recognize the needs of her child or in her ability to recognize social threats," says Hoekzema.
And while Hoekzema emphasizes that the researchers can't draw direct conclusions about how this changes behavior, this pruning and sharpening really would explain so much about pregnancy, like the "nesting instinct" that takes over a pregnant woman's thoughts during the last part of her pregnancy. So if anyone questions why you're obsessing over which crib is the safest or finding the perfect rose gold accent lamps for the nursery, you can just tell them you're better anticipating Baby's needs.