This major myth about women at work was just dispelled

If you have never heard of the term “mommy brain”, chances are that you haven’t been around too many women with children. Mommy brain is the perception that mothers are more forgetful and inattentive, which can be a harmful stigma for women who want to return to the workforce after giving birth.

Previous research has found links between slowed cognitive abilities and pregnancy, but not much research has been conducted on the lasting effects of having a child, but researchers at Purdue University’s Department of Anthropology wanted to change that.

According to the researchers, past studies have given attention and memory test to mothers very soon after giving birth, when hormones and sleep deprivation are likely to affect mother’s attention and memory processes in the brain.

The Purdue researchers conducted a new study that involved mothers who were at least a year postpartum in order to test the longterm effects of pregnancy and early motherhood on the brain.

Does having a child impair cognitive functions long term?

The researchers tested the reaction times of 60 mothers who had given birth at least one year before the experiment and compared the scores to those of 70 women who had no children.

The team used the Revised Attention Network Test (ANT-R) to calculate the reaction times of the women. The computer-based test flashes a box on the computer screen for 100 milliseconds on either the left or right side of the screen. Immediately after, an image of five arrows flashes on the screen for 500 milliseconds, with each arrow pointing left or right. Participants are asked to press a key on the keyboard that corresponds to the middle arrow among the set. Sometimes the arrow would point in the same direction as the side of the screen that the box appeared on and others the directions would be different.

The ANT-R tests three different kinds of cognitive abilities:

  • Alerting abilities: The brain’s ability to prepare for incoming stimuli.
  • Orienting abilities: The brain’s ability to pay attention to new stimuli.
  • Executive control: The brain’s ability to resolve conflicting information.

When analyzing the results, the researchers found no difference in reaction times between the women with children and the women with no children, suggesting that mothers and non-mothers have similar levels of attentiveness.

In the study, the mothers were an average of 10 years older than the non-mothers, but had similar alerting and orienting abilities and better executive control.

“Moms were not as distracted by those outside, incongruent items,” said Valerie Miller, lead author of the study, in a statement. “It makes perfect sense that moms who have brought children into this world have more stimuli that needs to be processed to keep themselves and other humans alive, and then to continue with all the other tasks that were required before the children.”

“Mommy brain” is actually a culturally-bound phenomenon

Although the computer test found that mothers and non-mothers have similar levels of attentiveness, the researchers wanted to examine how each group perceives their own attentiveness. In order to do this, they gave both groups of women a survey that asked them to reflect on their individual attention skills.

The survey included questions similar to the following:

  • How sleepy do you feel?
  • How do you think your attentiveness is?

The results showed that reaction times are consistent with self-reported attentiveness. So, the faster the reaction time on the computer test, the higher the self-reported level of attentiveness, and vice versa.

“This means that women have accurate awareness of their cognitive state, and that their concerns regarding their perceived attentional functioning should be taken seriously,” said Amanda Veile, coauthor of the study and assistant professor of anthropology. “We also believe that ‘mommy-brain’ may be a culture-bound phenomenon, and that mothers will feel the most distracted and forgetful when they feel stressed, overextended and unsupported. Unfortunately, many U.S. moms feel this way, especially now in the midst of economic and political instability and pandemic.”

Jennifer Fabiano is an SEO reporter at Ladders.