Nature’s brain-hacking

From a recent article in the Health section of The New York Times: “Pregnancy Changes the Brain in Ways That May Help Mothering.”

Pregnancy changes a woman’s brain, altering the size and structure of areas involved in perceiving the feelings and perspectives of others, according to a first-of-its-kind study published Monday.

Most of these changes remained two years after giving birth, at least into the babies’ toddler years. And the more pronounced the brain changes, the higher mothers scored on a measure of emotional attachment to their babies.


In the study, researchers scanned the brains of women who had never conceived before, and again after they gave birth for the first time. The results were remarkable: loss of gray matter in several brain areas involved in a process called social cognition or “theory of mind,” the ability to register and consider how other people perceive things.


A…possibility is that the loss is “part of the brain’s program for dealing with the future,” [Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California] said. Hormone surges in pregnancy might cause “pruning or cellular adaptation that is helpful,” he said, streamlining certain brain areas to be more efficient at mothering skills “from nurturing to extra vigilance to teaching.”

Another story, from the Guardian, “Pregnancy causes long-term changes to brain structure, says study”, adds some detail.

While the researchers say the lack of similar brain changes among new fathers suggests the adjustments are down to biological processes, such as fluctuations in hormones,[Cambridge University neuroimaging expert Dr. Kirstie] Whitaker points out that environmental influences could be at play. But she agrees with the authors’ suggestion that decrease in grey matter volume could be linked to evolutionary pressures.

“Being a new mum is hard and you have to adjust an awful lot,” said Whitaker. “Your brain is going to be able to respond to that change and it is going to make it so that you can take care of this newborn bundle of joy.”

Now to be sure, it is only one study with a relatively small number of subjects, and we should generally be skeptical of reports in popular media on new science. (I have included the Times‘s link to the underlying Nature paper so readers so inclined may follow that in detail). But let’s grant for the sake of argument that the researchers are onto something and Nature really is hacking pregnant women’s brains in the service of making them better mothers. That possibility prompts (for me, anyway) the following reflection.

At this time there circulate among a certain subset of men who identify as “pick-up artists” or “men’s rights activists” putative techniques for hacking women’s brains in order to increase their sexual availability to the would-be hackers. Decent people generally see these attempts at mind-hacking as a pretty vile way to behave toward other human beings, and rightly so. But curiously, when nature is the hacker, carrying out part of its relentless program of putting new generations of suffering beings on earth, we get something like breathless celebration.

Makes you wonder how much anyone thinks these things through.

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