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Sunday Scaries

5 ways moms influence our brains, attitudes, and resilience

The science of motherhood explained.

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Moms are not a homogenous group of cookie-baking, coupon-loving women despite the advertising that surrounds Mother’s Day. Who your mom is, is up to you — and how you want to process a relationship with your mother is a very personal thing.

But motherhood, and its effect on the brains and bodies of children, is worth examining through the lens of science. Despite the baggage or the joys that come via a relationship to a mother, maternal influence is still a quantifiable entity. Understanding it is a process that reveals more than a few fun facts: It teaches you more about yourself.

Here are five ways moms influence our brains, attitudes, and resilience.

5. Talking to mom can change how you see a situation.

In a 2014 study published in the journal Communication Monographs, 64 young women were asked to talk about a negative, personal experience. In the next phase of the study, the moms of these women discussed that personal experience with their daughters for 15 minutes. When the daughters were asked to return and share their story a third time, every participant shared a more positive version of the original story.

The study authors describe this as “communicative narrative sense-making” — a process where we sort through difficult feelings by sharing our stories with others. In this case, talking through the experience with moms led to a productive “re-authoring” of a difficult moment. The 64 young women didn’t just view their story in a new light; they walked away with improved well-being.

It’s also a good reason to call your mother figure this weekend.

4. A mom’s voice activates the brain.

Brain scans of children suggest we not only prefer the sounds of our mother’s voices over the voices of others, but our minds have evolved to uniquely respond to those sounds.

These images show brain activity in response to a mother’s voice. The study found mother's voices specifically elicit greater activity in parts of the brain. PNAS

In a 2016 study, Stanford University researchers used magnetic resonance imaging and found children could identify their mother’s voices within a clip of various nonsense-word recordings with 97 percent accuracy. Mothers’ voices also ignited critical parts of the children’s brains, including the primary auditory cortex, the amygdala, the mesolimbic reward pathway, and the default mode network. These regions deal with how we process sounds, emotions, what’s valuable, and information about the self.

“We didn’t realize that a mother’s voice would have such quick access to so many different brain systems,” reflected lead author, Daniel Abrams.

3. The neural connection between moms and babies makes a “mega-network.”

A 2020 study published in the journal NeuroImage found that when a mother’s emotional state is positive, their brain becomes more connected to their baby’s brain. This was determined by scanning the brains of moms and their infants via a method called dual electroencephalography.

This neural connection is boosted by positive interactions and eye contact and causes both brains to operate similar to a single system. The evolutionary reason underlying this is thought to be improved communication. Through this connection, babies are more equipped to learn from their moms.

2. Positive relationships with a mother can benefit a child throughout a lifetime.

The trajectory of a life is profoundly influenced by a mother, whether or not the relationship with a mom is a good one. And in a 2019 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, scientists found positive interactions with a mom within a child’s first 16 years were associated with staying in school longer, having better episodic memory, and better marital satisfaction in adulthood.

This builds off other research suggesting mothers influence how well we manage our emotions, attention, and actions.

1. Moms can literally change your brain.

A mother’s influence resonates both physically and mentally. Maternal support, in turn, affects brain size. In a 2012 study, scientists found school-aged children who were positively supported by their mothers had a larger hippocampus than those who were not. The hippocampus is a layer of densely packed neurons and plays a major role in learning and memory.

“This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings,” said lead author Joan L. Luby, a professor of child psychiatry.

“I think the public health implications suggest that we should pay more attention to parents’ nurturing, and we should do what we can as a society to foster these skills because clearly nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development.”

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