In a very basic sense, the brain’s two halves process information differently. The left side of the brain is said to specialize in all things logical and orderly while the right brain sparks emotion and brings out the creative, illogical side of the personality. And then there’s the baby brain, the term often used to describe the emotionally charged thought processes women experience during pregnancy.

A team of researchers in England wanted to know more about the baby brain phenomenon so they put 39 women to the test. The research was led by Dr. Victoria Bourne, of Royal Holloway, University of London, a research-oriented university founded by Queen Victoria in 1886. Bourne is a member of the university’s department of psychology.

Mother and babySome of the women in Bourne’s study were pregnant; others were new mothers. Each woman’s brain activity was tracked as she viewed images of adult and baby faces. The face views were specifically designed to represent positive emotional expressions and negative expressions.

Each facial view was a chimera: one half of the face portrayed a neutral expression while the opposite half portrayed an expression that represented either positive or negative emotion. This chimeric effect made it possible for the researchers to note which side of the study participant’s brain was responding to positive emotions and which to negative emotions.

Regardless of expression — positive or negative — the pregnant women in the study exhibited greater brain activity on the right side of the brain, where emotions are processed, than the new mothers exhibited. Bourne says the study’s findings indicate the heightened emotional sensitivity so many pregnant women display is the body’s way of mentally preparing them for motherhood.

This heightened sensitivity to emotions is thought to be a bonding mechanism that neurologically prepares the mother to bond emotionally with her baby. Bourne says previous studies have proven that pregnant women and new mothers are indeed more sensitive than usual to emotional expression. These women are especially stimulated by seeing the faces of babies.

“We also know,” says Bourne, “that new mothers who demonstrate symptoms of post-natal depression sometimes interpret their baby’s emotional expressions as more negative than they really are.” Her study and others contribute to a greater understanding of how brain activities such as those she tracked might influence a mother’s ability to bond with her baby.

Bourne presented the findings of her study to the British Psychological Society during its annual conference on May 7, 2014.

Source: “Preparing for parenthood: Study finds pregnant women show increased activity in right side of brain (press release).” Royal Holloway University of London. Royal Holloway, University of London. Jun 5, 2014. Web. Jun 16, 2014.

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