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This is Your Brain on Parenthood

Parenthood affects, and reflects, your brain and IQ in surprising ways

Are you too clever to be a mother?” was how the British Mail Online decided to word its coverage of evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa’s latest outrageous claim. The Washington Post phrased the question more delicately (“Are smarter women less likely to want children?”), but the point was the same. Kanazawa reportedly analyzed IQ data showing statistically lower birth rates among women who have children.

Both the Post and the Mail articles provide anecdotal evidence for either side of the position- showing the many accomplished and smart women who are, and are not, mothers. However, I was hard-pressed to find the actual study that these articles cite; in fact, the Post cites the Mail as its source of the “report.”

Kanazawa is known for a number of studies relating IQ to various life outcomes, such as health, attractiveness, and even love of classical music. None of my library sources provided the mommy-IQ “report” in any published article in psychology. I saw a reference to the study being mentioned in a book authored by Kanazawa, but such an outlet doesn’t meet the standards of peer-reviewed research.

The popularity of Kanazawa’s proposal, even in the face of no known published article, is only one in a succession of claims that there’s something mushy about the brains of women who have children. Whether it’s “pregnancy brain” (forgetting things while you’re pregnant due to the influence of hormones), or “mommy brain” (losing your wits because you’re so focused on your kids and caring for them), there seems to be something appealing in the popular mystique of the motherhood-IQ connection.

Kanazawa’s claim, with its basis in evolutionary psychology, fails to make common, if not empirical, sense. If our purpose in life is to propagate our species, why would the less intelligent in our midst be less likely to propagate? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Statistically, the notion is even less appealing. There can be no cause and effect conclusions made from any correlational studies, much less one dealing with so much potential for error on all sides. Less intelligent women may have fewer career options, or more intelligent women fewer partner options, or both may suffer from a third factor, which is a culture in which women still face many career and educational inequities. Until the controlled study is done, and women are assigned experimentally to the role of being a mother or not, we’ll never really know whether motherhood depresses a woman’s IQ.

Is it possible, however, that motherhood itself triggers a pattern of brain development that leads to IQ improvements, not declines? In 2005, author Katherine Ellison’s “The Mommy Brain” made the point that women become better- not worse- at handling cognitive challenges. According to Ellison, who did her homework in looking up published sources, motherhood can reshape the brain, making it more complex and able to handle everything from perception to efficiency, resilience, motivation, and the emotional kind of intelligence.

Rather than destroy your brain, then, can motherhood, if not parenthood, help it build new, adaptive pathways? As Ellison indicates, definiting intelligence as involving more than an IQ score, but instead incorporating emotional intelligence, the point gains even greater credibility.

In a 2012 article, psychologists Kelly Lambert and Craig Kinsley provided a recent update of this point. Their review of the literature suggested that motherhood and fatherhood have beneficial effects on the brain by stimulating neurobiological changes that make parents more nurturing as they adapt to the demands of caring for their offspring.

Parenthood provides a way for the brain to make a transition from a world consisting only of the “self” to one consisting of both “self and other.” This is an argument that does make sense. Not only does it build on the known plasticity of the brain, but it fits with the evolutionary argument that if parents didn’t have the wherewithal to care for their young, no species would ever survive.

There may be a temporary period in which both mothers and fathers feel that they’re not adapting well to their life pressures soon after assuming their new roles. The early days and months of parenthood are stressful at many levels. Apart from mothers needing to recover physically from childbirth, there’s the fact that they are often sleep-deprived and perhaps feeling pressured from having to fulfill this new set of family obligations.

The child itself, tiny and fragile, can lead parents (especially first-timers) to worry about hurting the baby through mishandling or ineptness. Advice comes in from all fronts—your own parents, health professionals, other parents, and the many online sources. Much of this advice can be conflicting. For parents who are spending extended periods of parental leave time at home with the child, there is also a sense of being pulled out of the mainstream of society, or at least your previous social world. Mothers in particular may also feel guilty, not only at this stage, but at every subsequent stage, for not spending enough time with their children.

Motherhood, then, and parenthood in general, can come at a high personal cost. However, if it were all a huge down side, no one would ever have children regardless of IQ, and none of us would be here today. Let’s break down, specifically, then, 6 of the ways that motherhood can benefit your IQ and- by extrapolation- your brain:

1. Constantly being exposed to new information. While learning everything about your child’s health and welfare, you’re also exposing yourself to new knowledge sources. Whether it’s an exotic but relatively harmless fungal infection your child develops to a more serious condition, you become thrust into new areas of medical expertise that you didn’t know existed. Throw on top of that the information you learn by helping older children with their homework and other assignments, and it’s clear that your brain benefits from this constant infusion of new stimulation.

2. Developing your softer side. Your kids need very different forms of attention and understanding than even the most challenging adult. Because people tend to love their children, and love them in ways that are different than the ways they love other adults, they are motivated to see the world from their point of view, at least once in a while. That kind of nurturing that Lambert and Kinsley talk about may begin early in parenthood but has the potential to continue for years and even decades.

3. Staying on top of what’s new. Through your kids, you learn- for better or worse- about what’s going on the world that might otherwise have passed you by. How many midlife and older adults today are iPhone savvy because their children (or grandchildren) have taught them about the new technologies? Although remaining as up-to-date as knowing the latest new form of social media may be a particularly 21st century phenomenon, there were probably equivalents to the transmission of new knowledge from the young to the old that can be traced back through recorded history.

4. Developing your own abilities. Perhaps you weren’t the most athletic kid in the world, but as the parent of a young soccer wannabee, you’ve got no choice but to become a little more coordinated with your feet. Or it could be the opposite, and you’re absolutely incapable of doing anything involving fine motor movement (painting, sewing, carpentry). Through practicing with your child, you can encourage the parts of your brain that handle these tasks to grow just a tiny bit.

5. Acquiring self-knowledge. A considerable amount of research on parenthood suggests that parents relive their own earlier stages through the experiences of their children. However, you relive these experiences with the brain of an adult, not a child or teenager. Therefore, by having the opportunity to look anew at the classic issues that children must face (establishing autonomy, dealing with bullies, to name just two), adults can gain new insights into their own development. Once we’re placed in the context of a previous situation, we remember details that may long have been buried. You remember now how you were bullied by the kids in the neighborhood when you see what your child is struggling with, gaining a connection to a part of your history that you otherwise wouldn’t have recalled at all.

6. Staying healthier. Becoming responsible for the young can lead you to pay more attention to your health if for no other reason than that you would like to be around when they grow up. In addition, though, all that running around after the kids, having to provide them with decent nutrition, and learning about the factors affecting their health can help you improve your own. You may also find that you actually like the soccer or dance lessons that your child is taking, and decide to get involved in adult games or classes. What’s good for your body’s health is good for your brain’s health, so by extrapolation, you’re benefitting your brain by taking these health-protective measures.

These are just a few of the most straightforward ways in which mothers and fathers can stay and even become smarter through the roles they take in their children’s lives. Of course, not everyone can have children, and not everyone (and not just the smartest ones of us) chooses not to have them. In that case, you can still benefit in each of the above ways by mixing up your exposure to the generations in your life. Find that young relative, neighbor, or child of a friend, and allow yourself to expand your brain’s horizons in at least some of the ways I’ve suggested.

In another article on the “parental brain,” Lambert (2012) suggests that parenthood should be thought of as a continuous variable, which would imply that you can take on some of parenting’s functions even if you’re not a child’s biological parent. It may take a village to raise a child, but raising a child can also help that village.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Lambert, K. G. (2012). The parental brain: Transformations and adaptations. Physiology & Behavior, 107(5), 792-800. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.03.018

Lambert, K. G., & Kinsley, C. H. (2012). Brain and behavioral modifications that accompany the onset of motherhood. Parenting: Science and Practice, 12, 74-88. doi: 10.1080/15295192.2012.638868