Pregnancy affects your body in weird ways—random cravings and mood swings obviously come to mind. But forgetting to mail your rent check might be all on you: “Pregnancy brain” definitely exists, but it may not be as negative as you think. In fact, it can make you more perceptive of other people’s emotions, according to new research presented at British Psychological Society Annual Conference in the U.K.
Previous research has shown that pregnant women and new mothers are more sensitive toward emotions, but this new study looked at the brain mechanisms behind this neurological change. Study authors conducted a behavioral test with 19 pregnant women within their third trimester and 20 new moms who gave birth within the past three months.
During the tests, participants were shown happy and sad faces of both adults and infants. However, they saw two mirror versions of each face: one where the left side of the face was emotionless and the right side expressed a feeling and vice versa. In general, the right hemisphere of your brain processes information seen in the left visual field while the opposite is true for the left hemisphere, but that can vary, says study author Victoria Bourne, Ph.D., senior lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. (And unlike the myth you've probably heard, research shows that most people don't have one side of the brain that's more dominant than the other.)
The results? Pregnant women were more sensitive to facial emotion in allof the pictures, which could mean that the right hemisphere of their brains (the one usually responsible for recognizing visual emotion) was more active in them than in new moms, meaning they could process emotion from all angles. This might be the body's way of preparing a soon-to-be mom to be more responsive to a baby once it's born, suggests Bourne.
So what about that other kind of pregnancy brain you hear about—like when you forget your keys in the fridge—is it just a myth? One meta-analysis of 14 studies in 2007 found some evidence of memory impairments in pregnant women, though the findings weren't totally consistent. Another 2010 study says that hormonal changes during pregnancy can affect your memory of spatial locations, but the research only looked at less than 50 women. Regardless, this new research shows that your brain changes during pregnancy—but that's not necessarily a bad thing. “‘Baby brain’ is often seen as a very negative way of looking at pregnancy,” Bourne adds. “Yes, your brain does change, but it’s helping you bond and monitor the baby.”