Thursday, April 28, 2005

Don't Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Katherine Ellison overturns common perceptions of mothers in her new book Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. Having children actually increases brain synapses, makes women more efficient, better at forming friendships, and learning new things. Here are some excerpts from a Time magazine interview:

“Every mom has a story that could support the notion that child rearing turns a woman's mind into mush: putting milk in the pantry and cereal in the fridge, losing the thread of a conversation in midsentence, misplacing the car keys for the 10th time. So widespread is the belief that babies make women brainless that when a satirical website released a fake study showing parents lost IQ points when their first child was born, MSNBC picked it up. But Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter and mother of two, doesn't believe in the dumbed-down mom. In her new book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter (Basic Books; 279 pages), Ellison lays out the scientific evidence for a baby-boosted brain. She explained her thinking in an interview with TIME.

Q: Surely sleep deprivation and demanding toddlers are an intellectual distraction, not an asset?

A: As a mom myself, I would never deny that children challenge parents' mental resources. And of course sustained sleep deprivation can have a serious impact on your thinking, which is why you have to be smart enough from the get-go to negotiate for naps with your partner, spouse or mother-in-law. My argument is that there are many surprising and fundamental ways in which, despite all the boring time you now have to spend picking up Lego bits from the floor, the experiences of having and rearing children can stimulate and enrich your brain and make you smarter.

Q: Are there concrete changes to the brain during motherhood?

A: Craig Kinsley and Kelly Lambert, two Virginia neuroscientists who have done truly pioneering work, have dissected rats' brains and found that during pregnancy there was a tremendous blossoming of what are called dendritic spines--the parts of the neurons that reach out and form synapses, necessary for new learning. Dr. Kinsley compares it to a computer acquiring extra bandwidth to help it run more than one program at a time. There has also been some intriguing recent research on the impacts of two hormones important to motherhood, oxytocin and prolactin, on mental functioning--specifically, learning and memory and the reduction of fear and anxiety.

This is Ellison’s third book and she’s already getting a lot of press about its findings. Last week she appeared on the Early Show on CBS and then did dozens of satellite interviews with stations around the country. I asked her what the whirlwind media tour was like.

“I was fairly petrified until roughly 9:05 a.m. Wednesday, when I realized that a) the Early Show appearance was over and b) I hadn't completely stuck my foot in it. But after that was done, I started truly enjoying New York. I hung out with a good friend from my Rio days, dropped by the new Moma, and turned in early because on Thursday I had about 30 local TV interviews by satellite, from Pennsylvania to Alabama to California (Santa Rosa and San Diego).

We had to be there at 5:30 to get settled and do makeup; it was grueling, but by the end I suspected I may have actually vanquished my panic about TV. The high point of the trip was a phone conversation with Sara Ruddick, a philosopher who wrote a book called "Maternal Thinking" in 1989, which really inspired me. She is very ill now, unfortunately, but has been very supportive, and I loved sharing this experience with her. Any time I start getting a swelled head, it helps to keep in perspective how many great people have been part of this book.”

I saw Ellison at Cody’s in Berkeley Tuesday night. You can catch her Monday, May 2 on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny, where she will be talking on a panel with other mother/writers.

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