How Grandmother Brains React to Grandchildren, According to Science

How Grandmother Brains React to Grandchildren

Want to know how a grandmother’s brain reacts to her grandchild? 

According to science, it’s pretty amazing.

Scientists have been studying this very question for years, and they’ve finally come up with some answers.

Read on to find out what scientists have discovered about the way grandmothers’ brains change when they become grandparents. 

Trust me. It’ll all be worth it.

It’s long been known that the birth of a grandchild can bring about some changes in a grandmother’s behavior.

But scientists have only recently begun to study how the grandmother’s brain actually changes in response to a new grandchild. 

The findings by Emory University researchers are some of the first to look at how the brain changes in response to grandparenthood. 

How grandmother’s brains react to their grandchildren

The researchers found that when a woman becomes a grandmother, there are certain changes that take place in her brain.

According to James Rilling, Emory professor of anthropology and author of the study, “What jumps out in the data is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” 

“That really suggests that grandmothers are geared toward feeling what their grandchildren are feeling when they interact with them. If their grandchild is smiling, they’re feeling the child’s joy. And if their grandchild is crying, they’re feeling the child’s pain and distress.” (Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B.)

So, what does this all mean?

Simply put, it means that grandmothers’ brains are wired to respond to their grandchildren in a way that allows them to feel what the child is feeling.

This ability to empathize with their grandchildren is likely what allows grandmothers to be such a valuable source of support and advice for their families.

For the study, the Emory researchers used a brain imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 50 grandmothers as they looked at pictures of their own grandchildren, children they didn’t know, and adults they didn’t know. 

The findings showed that when grandmothers looked at pictures of their own grandchildren, there was increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with empathy and caregiving.

This increased activity was not seen when the grandmothers looked at pictures of children or adults they didn’t know.

The researchers believe that this increased activity in the empathy-related areas of the brain may help grandmothers to better understand and respond to their grandchildren’s emotions.

How grandmother’s brains react to their adult children 

The researchers also found that when grandmothers looked at pictures of their adult children, the brain areas linked to cognitive empathy lit up rather than emotional empathy.

This suggests that when grandmothers interact with their adult children, they are more likely to be thinking about what their children are thinking and feeling, rather than feeling what their children are feeling.

Of course, Rilling says, “Young children have likely evolved traits to be able to manipulate not just the maternal brain, but the grand maternal brain. An adult child doesn’t have the same cute ‘factor,’ so they may not elicit the same emotional response.”

But wait – there’s more.

Co-authors of the study are Minwoo Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in Emory’s Department of Anthropology, and Amber Gonzalez, a former Emory research specialist.

Speaking from personal experience, Lee explains, “I can relate to this research personally because I spent a lot of time interacting with both of my grandmothers.” 

“I still remember warmly the moments I had with them. They were always so welcoming and happy to see me. As a child, I didn’t really understand why.”

Lee explained that studying the older human brain outside of dementia or age-related disorders is uncommon in scientific research. 

“Here, we’re highlighting the brain functions of grandmothers that may play an important role in our social lives and development. It’s an important aspect of the human experience that has been largely left out of the field of neuroscience.”

The grandmother hypothesis

Of course, the idea that grandmothers play an important role in human social lives and development is not new.

In fact, there’s a whole field of study devoted to it called the “grandmother hypothesis.”

The grandmother hypothesis suggests that the evolution of human longevity (the ability to live to a ripe old age) was driven by the need for grandmothers to care for their grandchildren. 

The idea is that as grandparents started living longer and longer, they were able to pass down their knowledge and experience to their grandchildren, which helped the children to survive and thrive.

Rilling says, “We often assume that fathers are the most important caregivers next to mothers, but that’s not always true. In some cases, grandmothers are the primary helper.”

The takeaway 

The findings of this study suggest that grandmothers’ brains may be wired to better understand and respond to their grandchildren’s emotions. 

This increased understanding and responsiveness may be due to the increased activity in the empathy-related areas of the grandmothers’ brains. 

Additionally, the study found that when grandmothers interact with their adult children, they are more likely to be thinking about what their children are thinking and feeling, rather than feeling what their children are feeling. 

These findings provide insights into the important role that grandmothers play in human social lives and development.

How Grandmother Brains React to Grandchildren, According to Science

Also read: 22 Things Mentally Strong Parents Do for Their Children