What Does Science Have to Say About Pregnancy Brain?
Note: Check out the companion piece to this article, written by Mombot.
One of the most humbling things about having kids is that you realize that a lot of your opinions about pregnancy and parenthood are bullshit. Nothing really happens exactly the way you think it will, no matter how much experience you have. Before I was pregnant, I heard a lot about “pregnancy brain” and it sounded to me like some of the same old sexist stereotypes that people think about women. Specifically, how forgetful and “oops”-prone a woman becomes once she’s pregnant. I even had the gall to tell a pregnant woman that pregnancy brain was just some self-fulfilling prophecy shit.
Then I got pregnant.
About four weeks into my pregnancy, I started to get nauseated, and gradually I developed all of the other fun symptoms: sore breasts, uterine cramps, sensitivity to smells, headaches, and forgetfulness.
Around the time that I started to experience forgetfulness, the one thing that I still remembered was how rude it was of pre-pregnant me to tell someone else that their pregnancy-related forgetfulness wasn’t real. And now I was going through it myself. So, not only was I feeling physically bad because I was pregnant, but I felt like I’d let my feminist self down because pregnancy was really making me forgetful.
The scientific part of my brain wondered: why is this happening? Is there actually forgetfulness associated with being pregnant or is something else going on?
This article from Psychology Today has a good summary of the current research out there on the effect of pregnancy on cognitive abilities. In a recent analysis of current research, the authors concluded that there was a “significant” degree of pregnancy-related impairment on some aspects of memory. However, as PT mentions:
By “significant” they meant statistically significant. But as Nicole Hurt details in her critique of the coverage (Legitimising “Baby Brain”: Tracing a Rhetoric of Significance Through Science and the Mass Media), journalists worldwide misunderstood the research summary and the public message became sensationalised: “many [pregnant] women … suffer considerable memory loss” (from The Observer; emphasis added) is just one example.
I know science journalism isn’t always up to par, but boooo to the journalists for confusing the concept of “statistical significance.” (Unfortunately, I can’t verify the results of the review for myself because the article is behind a paywall.) As the PT article also mentions, other researchers have had mixed results, and I haven’t picked apart the study designs, so I can’t say if there is evidence saying that there is a link between pregnancy and memory impairment or not.
Once I sat down and thought about what was happening to my memory (that is, once I got over my all-day nausea), it occurred to me that the reason for my own mental impairment was probably due to the fact that I was exhausted. It wasn’t that I had a bad memory, it’s just that I wasn’t getting enough sleep and also I lowered my coffee consumption. Once I got into my third trimester, if I only had to get up once per night to pee, then it was a good night! And not only was I sleep-deprived, but my priorities had totally changed, so that when I was awake, I was more worried about every little twinge of pain or what my baby was doing than, say, crunching numbers and remembering to file my paperwork at work. If you asked me what my baby’s latest stats were, or exactly what day pregnant I was, I could’ve told you, because that information was more important to me.
Another article from WebMD brings up the point that animal studies contradict human studies and show that pregnancy actually improves cognitive function in female animals. Helen Christianson, PhD, published a study that said,
”This suggested to us that the effect of pregnancy or motherhood on cognitive abilities may not have been adequately tested,” she writes in the journal. Major flaws in the human research, she states, are a lack of memory testing before the pregnancy occurs in order to get a baseline, a sample size that is too small, and lack of a follow-up period.
She went on to say that women self-reported higher levels of cognitive impairment than their studies actually showed. So even if there *is* an effect on memory due to pregnancy, this effect could also be amplified unintentionally by stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies.
The take-away lesson I learned from looking up this research is that better-designed studies need to be done regarding the so-called Pregnancy Brain effect. There may be some sort of effect, but that could also be caused by exhaustion and shifting priorities, which could happen for any big life event.
There are so many factors that can affect long-term memory uptake that I wouldn’t be surprised if some condition RELATED to pregnancy was causing some minor memory loss. Saying that “pregnancy” as a general condition causes memory loss sounds like a severe oversimplification.
I would be curious to see some properly controlled studies on this in humans.