The myth of ‘mommy brain’: Most mothers are just as attentive as women without young children

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The term “mommy brain” refers to the commonly held belief that mothers are forgetful and inattentive. But is it a real thing? A new study by Purdue University researchers challenges this view by demonstrating that mothers are not more forgetful or inattentive than non-mothers, at least for one year after giving birth.

In the study, researchers tested reaction times of 60 mothers who had given birth at least one year prior to the experiment. They compared the scores against 70 women without children. To calculate reaction times, they used a computer-based test known as the Revised Attention Network Test (ANT-R).

In the ANT-R, a box flashes on the computer screen for 100 milliseconds in one of two possible locations on the left or right side of the screen. Then, an image of five arrows flashes on the screen for 500 milliseconds. Each arrow points left or right and participants are asked to press a key on the keyboard that corresponds to the direction of the middle arrow among the set. In some cases, the arrow points in the same direction as the side of the screen that the box initially appeared on. In other cases, the directions are different.

ANT-R Schematic
Schematic of the ANT-R. For each cue condition (non, double, valid, and invalid), a cue box is displayed for 100 milliseconds. After the variable duration (zero, 400, or 800 milliseconds), five arrows appear for 500 milliseconds on one side of the display. The participant is asked to press the button that corresponds to the direction of the middle arrow only. (Courtesy Purdue University)

The ANT-R is designed to test three types of cognitive abilities: the brain’s ability to prepare for incoming stimuli (alerting abilities); the brain’s ability to pay attention to new stimuli (orienting abilities); and the brain’s ability to resolve conflicting information (executive control).

The researchers found no difference in reaction times between the two groups, suggesting that mothers and non-mothers have similar attentiveness. Moreover, even though mothers were, on average, 10 years older than non-mothers, they had similar alerting and orienting abilities and better executive control, after the researchers controlled for age.

“Moms were not as distracted by those outside, incongruent items,” first-author Valerie Miller explains 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 a ‘culture-bound phenomenon’

The researchers also examined how mothers and non-mothers perceive their own attentiveness. To do this, they gave women a survey asking them to reflect on their own attention skills. Among the questions: “How sleepy do you feel?” and “How do you think your attentiveness is?”

Results show that reaction times, as measured using the ANT-R, are consistent with self-reported attentiveness. For example, faster reaction times on the ANT-R are associated with higher self-reported attentiveness, and vice versa. These results suggest that both mothers and non-mothers are able to accurately judge their own level of attentiveness.

“This means that women have accurate awareness of their cognitive state, and that their concerns regarding their perceived attentional functioning should be taken seriously,” says co-author and assistant professor of anthropology, Amanda Veile. “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.”

The study is published in Current Psychology.

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