A Mother’s Love Affects the Brain

Mother - Brain

No wait!  That isn’t a setup line for a punchline. A recent study shows that nurturing a child early in life may help him or her develop a larger hippocampus, the region of the brain that is important for learning, memory and stress responses.

Brain images have now revealed that a mother’s love physically affects the volume of her child’s hippocampus. In the study, children of nurturing mothers had hippocampal volumes 10 percent larger than children whose mothers were not as nurturing. And research has suggested a link between a larger hippocampus and better memory.

One of the study authors had this to say; “We can now say with confidence that the psychosocial environment has a material impact on the way the human brain develops.” Dr. Joan Luby, the study’s lead researcher and a psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO said, “It puts a very strong wind behind the sail of the idea that early nurturing of children positively affects their development.”

What Did the Researchers Do?

The researchers placed the mother and the child in a room along with an attractively wrapped gift. They also provided a survey that the mother had to fill out. The children were told they could not open the present until five minutes had passed — basically until their mothers had finished the survey. A group of psychiatrists, who knew nothing about the children’s health or the parents’ temperaments, rated the amount of support the mothers gave to their children.

A mother who was very supportive, for example, would console her child, explaining that the child had only a few more minutes to wait and that she understands the situation was frustrating. “The task recapitulates what everyday life is like,” Luby told LiveScience, meaning that it gives researchers an idea of how much support the child receives at home.

Notice the word that the researcher used — “support.” I wonder for a moment if researchers were watching or observing me. Would they use the word “support” to describe my interactions with those around me?

Now, four years later, the researchers gave MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans to 92 children who underwent the waiting task. Compared with non-depressed children with high maternal support, non-depressed children with low support had 9.2 percent smaller hippocampal volumes, while depressed children with high and low support had 6.0 and 10.6 percent smaller volumes, respectively.

What is truly amazing here is that we all know how important a mother’s love is to a child. What we didn’t know is that it has a physical affect on the actual size and development of critical areas of the brain.

What is the Leadership Lesson for Mother’s Day?

I think it is this. If you are fairly good at learning, if you have a decent memory, and you are able to handle the stresses that life throws at you on a daily basis — all of which are building blocks for effective leadership — then thank your Mother today and tell her how grateful for what she did early in your life to help make you the person that you are today.

It just may be that the early support that your mother gave you has helped shape you into the leader and the person that you are today.

What are you doing to “support” those around you? Young parents, young mothers, what are you doing to make a lasting and physical difference in your children’s lives?

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar / Photo / CC BY-ND

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