How Motherhood Makes You Smarter

New studies on rats show that being a mom does more than change her body, it may maximize her brainpower too

Research shows that mothers are better than others at problem solving, handling stress and at completing certain memory tasks. (© Ocean / Corbis)

Adam Franssen, a biology professor at Longwood University, has a bold theory: mothers are smarter than other women.

He and other researchers, including Craig Kinsley of the University of Richmond, have found that there’s more science than previously thought to being equipped for motherhood. Mothers are better at problem solving, handling stress and at completing certain memory tasks.

Franssen’s aim has been to figure out what is happening in the brains of mothers to warrant these advantages. He designs experiments with mother and non-mother (but still female) rats to see how both groups perform on tasks such as navigating a maze. Then, he studies brain tissue samples from the rats to determine what neurons were activated. Does being a mother give a woman more neurons? Or, are a mother’s neurons bigger or more efficient? Franssen explains.

You have this theory about revving racecar engines and pregnant women’s brains. Can you explain? What do the two have in common?

It is funny comparison. At the revving stage, a racecar’s engine is getting prepped for that race. It seems like there is a lot of evidence to suggest that is actually what’s happening in the mother’s brain during the period of pregnancy. There are changes happening to neurons. They are increasing in size or some neurons have been shown to not only grow but to potentially increase their capacity to produce protein in one part of the brain or perhaps increase their neuronal branches to make communications from one neuron to another neuron that it wasn’t talking with before—all in anticipation of the high workload of caring for a child.

So, what advantages do mothers have over non-mothers, behaviorally?

It is quite the gamut of things that moms can do better than non-moms in the rat world. It is always fair to start by pointing out that rats are uni-parental. That is, the female is the only one that takes care of the pups. The males don’t play a role.

There is a big difference between a non-mother rat and a mother rat, just in terms of caring for their young in the first place. If you put a virgin rat in a cage or a maze with rat pups, it really stresses her out. She will avoid the pups and get as far away as possible. She will exhibit stress grooming behaviors and is generally not interested in these pups, whereas after pregnancy, a mother rat is much more interested. She will collect pups. She will lick them, groom them, feed them, keep them warm and protect them from predators.

A bunch of studies have shown that moms are actually better at all types of learning. If you were to put mother rats in a maze and virgin rats in a maze and train them, the mother rats will complete the maze faster.

Moms are better at memory. So, if you put food in a location and train the rat to find food there, mom rats are much better at finding that food the next time. Retrospective memory is you remember what happened yesterday or what your birthday was like last year. Prospective memory is planning for a future event. You wake up in the morning and you pack a lunch knowing that you are going to be hungry at noon. One of the projects that I am collaborating with Dr. Kinsley on at the moment is seeing if prospective memory is present in rats. Our preliminary unpublished studies suggest that mother rats are better at planning for the future versus non-mothers.


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