The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, By Katherine Ellison, Basic, 279 pp., $25
Good news for all of us who fought a losing battle with ''placenta brain," the months of dullness, fatigue, and absent-mindedness often associated with pregnancy and the early weeks of caring for a newborn.
We'll all be getting those IQ points back -- and then some -- as the baby grows up, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Ellison.
In her new book ''The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter," Ellison, herself a mother of two, explains how caring for a small child actually rewires the brain, making mothers (and involved fathers) more perceptive, efficient, creative, socially aware, and competitive.
Pregnancy does shrink the brain and bathe it in an unfamiliar stew of reproductive hormones, she writes, but beginning a few weeks after giving birth, a woman's cognitive abilities -- especially smell and visual perception -- start to expand.
The changes are likely a biological programming throwback to protect the young and help them survive. But placed in the context of 21st-century Western society, these mechanisms create a flexible, plastic brain.
''You're paying attention, and quickly learning from experience, because someone's life depends on it," Ellison writes.
Most working mothers cite improved focus on their work on returning from leave, and are not distracted clock-watchers, as conventional (male) wisdom claims. Mothers actually use their more limited time at the office to get more done, and employ their newfound emotional IQ and management skills to increase office output, says Ellison, citing a 2003 Wellesley College study of female executives.
This is a sharp and welcome twist on the stereotype of theempty-headed mom, unable to remember anything more complex than when Junior's music lessons and hockey games begin.
What really trips up mothers, Ellison writes, is not biology, but a lack of confidence in their abilities, and hostile workplaces that refuse to accommodate women with children. Also, a lack of sleep, exercise, and relaxation time makes all parents feel duller than they really are, and Ellison offers hints to combat these preventable brain drains.
''Daddy" brains and the effects of parenthood on adoptive mothers are also examined in the book, and Ellison happily concludes that most benefits translate to all caregivers, not just women who have given birth.
''The Mommy Brain" includes a lot of science but never gets too dense. Ellison is a thorough reporter, and her cheerleading approach helps sustain reader momentum until the final, albeit slightly squishy chapter, ''The Magic of Motivated Mothers."
Many of her arguments are based on the only research available -- in lab mice -- and extrapolated to apply to human females, using lively anecdotal examples.
It's still all very easy to swallow, especially if you want to believe that motherhood improves life, not wrecks it. But far more research in humans is necessary to make ''The Mommy Brain" less of a feel-good read and more of a call to arms for working moms.
Erica Noonan can be reached at email@example.com.