They say grandchildren are the greatest joy of life, and now the first study to examine the brain function of grandmothers has suggested that grandmothers may be more emotionally attached to their grandchildren than to their own sons and daughters.
Since the 1960s, researchers have argued that one reason women tend to live decades after their reproductive years is that it increases their grandchildren’s chances of survival, through the physical support they often provide – the grandmother hypothesis. More recent evidence has indicated that the well-being and educational effectiveness of children is also accelerated by the presence of engaged grandparents.
To better understand the biological foundations of this link, Professor James Rilling, an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues recruited 50 women with at least one biological grandson between the ages of three and 12, and used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan their. brains as they looked at photos of that child, the child’s parents, and pictures of an unrelated child and adult.
“What really jumps out is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” Rilling said. “This suggests that grandmothers are oriented to feel what their grandchildren feel when they interact with them. If their grandson smiles, they feel the joy of the child. And if their grandson cries, they feel the pain and distress of the child. . ”
Rilling had previously done a similar exercise with fathers as they looked at pictures of their children. The activation seen in the grandmothers ’emotional processing areas, and in those associated with reward and encouragement, was stronger, on average, than the fathers’ – although there were a few dads who had just as much activation in these areas.
In contrast, when grandmothers looked at pictures of their adult child, slightly different brain areas tended to be activated: those associated with cognitive empathy. This could indicate that they were trying to cognitively understand their adult child, rather than experiencing this more direct emotional connection. “Emotional empathy is when you are able to feel what someone else is feeling, but cognitive empathy is when you understand on a cognitive level what someone else is feeling and why,” Rilling said.
This might help to explain the experience that many adult children have that their parents often seem more excited to see their grandchildren than they do. “I think that’s credible,” said Rilling, whose findings were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. “Young children probably developed traits to be able to manipulate not only the mother’s brain, but the maternal brain. same beautiful factor, so they may not have the same emotional response. “
The results support the idea that there may be a global care system in the brain that is activated in mothers (who have been examined in separate studies), fathers, and grandmothers. Rilling now hopes to study grandparents and other child caregivers to see how they compare.