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Off The News / Are mothers smarter? We ask the people
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In Their Wisdom, Moms Question Study

November 12, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Men are from Mars, that barren wasteland of rock and ice. No dispute there.

And women are from Venus, that nightmarish place where light can't penetrate the thick atmospheric canopy of dust and clouds.

But, wait, apparently all women may not be from the second rock from the sun. According to a new study, there's a special group of women called "Moms" who may be from another world altogether--like, say, the planet Brainiac.

Neuroscientists recently found that motherhood may actually make women smarter. In laboratory tests conducted at the University of Richmond and Randolph Macon College in Virginia, pregnant or nursing mice doubled their production of brain cells critical for learning and memory function. Mothering mice who gave birth to one or more offspring also navigated mazes more quickly, made fewer mistakes and retained their new knowledge longer, researchers found.

The new study on lab animals clashes with another performed on a small group of women last year at USC. The USC study showed women in their last trimester did worse on certain intellectual and memory tasks. And a British study last year revealed women's brains may actually shrink slightly during pregnancy, which might affect concentration.

So, which is it? Supermoms ready for "Jeopardy!" or dingbat-moms ready to switch to the "Jerry Springer Show" because "Oprah" is too hard to understand?

Science obviously lacks the brainpower to answer the question right now. Likewise men, who don't have the apparent benefit of a brain boost from childbirth, haven't got any bright ideas on the topic either.

Thus, with the limitations of a study on rodents in mind, it seemed appropriate to ask those who should know best--mothers. In an informal survey, many new moms said their experience ran counter to the latest research.

"Well, you certainly feel dumber," said Debbie Bernstein, a high school teacher and mother of a 3-month-old baby. "I can't even remember what I ate for breakfast."

Her husband, Nick Johnson, agreed: "She's completely scatterbrained. She used to be completely organized and could juggle any number of things at once."

But displaying a mental agility and wit that contradicted her initial observation, Bernstein continued: "I think you forget the trivial things like what you had for breakfast and where you put your wallet, so you can access more important information like, 'Where did I put the baby?' "

Indeed, many moms reported episodes of absent-mindedness during pregnancy and the first few months of motherhood. But most said there was a simple explanation.

"You're completely preoccupied with preparing for the baby's arrival and then caring and nurturing it when it comes," said Dr. Deidre Gifford, an ob-gyn and mother of a young son. "Also, many women are sleep-deprived during this time, and that alone can account for the forgetfulness.

"I remember talking to patients when I was pregnant and literally forgetting what I was saying in midsentence," added Gifford, whose patients report similar troubles late in their pregnancies. "It was mortifying."

Moms also seemed somewhat surprised but more open to the other findings of the latest study, which observed that mother mice tended to be bolder, more curious and more energetic. It's unclear exactly what the Virginia researchers may have meant by bolder, but moms made it clear they didn't feel like joining an expedition up Mt. Everest any time soon.

If anything, mothers said, they've felt more apprehension upon the arrival of their newborns. They are consciously taking fewer chances, particularly in daily chores like driving, now that they have to consider the welfare of their baby.

"Lately, I've been more fearful," said Sandra Braverman, a writer with a 14-month-old. "You're afraid for the child's safety. It's a big world, and things happen."

But if boldness means taking decisive action in the face of a threat to a child, many agreed with the characterization.

"I've always thought of myself as a passive and nonthreatening person," Bernstein said. "But if I had to beat someone up and poke their eyes out with a stick to protect my child, I'd do it. I know I wasn't like that before."

Also, mothers concurred that their curiosity levels rose after childbirth but said virtually all of it was directly connected to the new child. In addition to reading obsessively about child-rearing, mothers said they were eager to share the wonder of the world with the child.

While the mice mothers may have been peppier, human mothers weren't so sure about their energy levels. On the one hand, they're doing more now than they ever thought they could--and with considerably less sleep. But on the other, they're exhausted most of the time too.

In their collective wisdom, though, mothers questioned the accuracy of scientific studies that observe mice and make extrapolations about human behavior. There's just no way a study can accurately re-create the relationship dynamics between a mother and child.

"If you had to go through a maze to do something for your child, you'd do it," said Marian Williams, a psychologist and mother of two young boys. "But if you have to go through a maze just because someone asked you to do it for a test, forget it. You're just too tired."

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