Please note: this article was originally published in 2003 and more work has been published on this topic since.
Researchers at a recent British Psychological Society conference claim to have refuted the ‘myth’ that women’s mental capacities diminish during pregnancy (HMG Worldwide Ltd 2003). Their small study investigated whether there was any justification in the idea that pregnant women tend to suffer from impaired memory and concentration, and found that, although the pregnant women felt that their memory and concentration were reduced, there were no differences in the cognitive abilities of the pregnant and non-pregnant women studied.
The authors clearly feel these results are very positive for women. They have shown that pregnant women score just as well on intellectual tests as non-pregnant women. They feel we can now be rid of the ‘myth’ that women have different cognitive capabilities during pregnancy. They are also keen to debunk another ‘myth’; that women have different cognitive abilities at different stages of their menstrual cycle. Hooray! Women, even pregnant and menstruating women, have been shown to be just as ‘rational’ as men.
But is rationality what we really desire during pregnancy? I don’t have any real doubt that women can be rational and intellectual during pregnancy, if that is their choice. I suspect that might have been the (possibly subconscious) choice of the pregnant women in this study, who may well have seen value and personal reward in proving their cognitive capabilities in tests against the scores of non-pregnant women. But I am not convinced that this is a route we should allow psychologists to take pregnancy down, at least not without first engaging in the debate.
I suppose, in questioning the value of this research, I could be seen as one of the midwives who is criticised by the authors of the study, for perpetuating the idea that the brain is different in pregnancy. But I don’t do this to denigrate pregnant women, and I don’t want to insist that pregnancy leads to automatic cognitive impairment. If anything, I am trying to hold a space for pregnant woman where it is acceptable to feel different, and where that does not lead to negative consequences, sarcastic comments or assumptions about the value of their abilities. I want it to be okay for all pregnant women to experience whatever it means for them to be pregnant. If that means they want to carry on and be as rational as possible, perhaps staying in an intellectually demanding job until they give birth, then let’s support that as their choice. But if they want to know it’s also okay to be in a less-than-rational space for part or all of their pregnancy, then I’d like to support that possibility too.
Cultures which place a high value on rationality are usually characterised by male-based society and religion, and have tended to suggest that menstruating and sometimes pregnant women should be segregated because they are less than clean. Even today, while menstruating women are not segregated in the UK, we are still bombarded with adverts which offer products to help us hide the fact that we are menstruating and enable us to carry on with our everyday roles. Yet older, female-based philosophies enabled women to set themselves apart, so that they could experience and enjoy their ‘differentness’ (Eisler 1995). In some circles, the menstruating (and menopausal) woman is still perceived as especially magical and wise, and value is given to her increased ability to be intuitive, rather than taken from her decreased desire to be rational.
Some very experienced midwives have talked about the value of not being rational during pregnancy, and how this enables the woman’s hormones and body to lead her in her journey towards birth and motherhood (Wickham 1999, Gaskin 2002). We clearly needed to move on from the image of the helpless and dependent middle class Victorian woman, in claiming the rights of women as equal and valuable community members, but it is quite another thing to find we are in danger of ending up in a position where we deny difference. My fear is that, by setting out to prove that pregnant women are no different to non-pregnant women, or from men, w
e will lose the little space that women do have to explore what female rites of passage mean for them.
I don’t know whether the ‘big pregnancy brain mush myth’ is a myth or not. I don’t know whether all woman have the potential to experience a different kind of reality during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, or whether this idea has developed as a way of simply allowing women more space at this time. I do know, both rationally and in my heart, that to continue to extol the rational as better than other ways of being and knowing is not going to take us nearly as far as if we could stay open to the possibilities and stop trying to deny or remove difference.
This is one of Sara’s older articles and it is archived here for historical interest only. Click here to see her most recent posts and articles!
A bit of an update
In 2014, the UK press again jumped on the findings of a research study and translated it into a headline without taking full account of the detail or considering the wider picture for women. Again, the subject was the phenomenon of so-called ‘baby brain’.
This phenomenon is known in some circles as mumnesia. ‘Baby brain’ describes the situation where some pregnant women and new mums find that they are less able to concentrate on rational tasks. They might also experience memory lapses. The headlines allege that the study, originally published in 2014, showed that baby brain is a stereotype rather than a real phenomenon.
Soon after the headlines hit the news stands, Behind the Headlines published their analysis of the research. They explained that this was a small study, of just 21 women. And it didn’t take into account the memory capacity and problem solving abilities of the participating women before they became pregnant. Taking this and other issues into account, they conclude that, “this study does not provide conclusive evidence that pregnancy has no effect on memory and attention”. (NHS Choices 2015).
And my take?
As I wrote in the article above, I want to support the idea that the brain might be different in pregnancy.
And that this might be OK or normal for some women.
Maybe even a good thing.
Why might baby brain be good?
There are several reasons why baby brain might be a normal thing. Perhaps it’s even a natural consequence of pregnancy, as least for some women. Pregnancy and motherhood are tiring, and tiredness can lead anyone to function differently. For many women, it involves learning a whole new skill set, and that is also tiring. Particularly on top of the lack of sleep that may come with advanced pregnancy and a new baby.
But I’m going to go further than that. I’m going to propose the idea that so called baby brain might even be a good sign. Or it would if we took a woman-centred approach to thinking about the issues. We know from all sorts of evidence that pregnancy, birth and mothering are journeys which ideally feature lots of oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding. While I don’t want to get all black-and-white about comparing states of being, we know that oxytocin may not flow so well when we are stressed out. And if we’re continually using our rational, mathematical, thinking brains, we can get stressed out. Which is one of the reasons that I get concerned when people argue that women can be just as rational when they are pregnant and mothering.
Yes, I’m sure they can be if they want to.
Women are pretty amazing at being whatever they need to be at the time.
But can we please let them have the option of switching off and being filled with oxytocin ahead of, during and after their birth experiences if they want to be? Even if this means being a bit less rational for a while?
Could it be more complex than this?
In fact, there is also another possibility. This might be a step too far for the tabloid press and those who like to lump the entire population of pregnant women together into one group which can then be easily judged. But the other possibility is that we could stop trying to measure how pregnancy, birth and/or the experience of being a new mum is for everyone, as if we all have the same experience. Instead, we could ask individual women what the experience is like for them.
As a unique, individual person.
Whose experience is anything but average.
And who knows more about that experience and how it is making her think, be, know and feel better than anyone.
This idea, I know, is a bit revolutionary. So don’t expect to find it int he tabloids anytime soon.
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Logan DM, Hill KR, Jones R, et al (2014). How do memory and attention change with pregnancy and childbirth? A controlled longitudinal examination of neuropsychological functioning in pregnant and postpartum women. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. 36(5):528-39.
No such thing as baby brain, study argues. NHS Choices, (2015). NHS Choices: behind the headlines, 8 April 2015.
HMG Worldwide Ltd. Women “not mentally affected” by pregnancy. http://uk.news.yahoo.com/030314/103/dvfzg.html Accessed 27th March 2003.
Eisler R (1995) 2nd Ed. The Chalice and the Blade. HarperCollins, New York.
Gaskin IM (2002). Spiritual Midwifery. 4th Ed. The Book Publishing Company, Summertown, TN.
Wickham, S (1999). Reclaiming the art in birth. Midwifery Matters 83: 6-7.