Story at a glance

  • A new study was published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B conducted by researchers with Emory University.
  • The study examined the brains of 50 women who had at least one biological grandchild between the ages of 3 and 12 and scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
  • The women were shown images of their grandchild, their child, an anonymous child and an anonymous adult while researchers analyzed their scans to see which areas of the brain were stimulated.

A new study published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that grandmothers may feel a deeper emotional connection to their grandchildren than their own children.

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Conducted by researchers with Emory University, the study examined the brains of 50 women who had at least one biological grandchild between the ages of 3 and 12. The women’s brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which examines brain activity.

The women were shown images of their grandchild, their child, an anonymous child and an anonymous adult while researchers analyzed their scans to see which areas of the brain were stimulated. The grandmothers were also given questionnaires to gage their levels of engagement with their grandchildren.

“What really jumps out is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” James Rilling, an anthropologist and lead author of the study, said in a press release of the area of the brain stimulated by their grandchildren. “That suggests that grandmothers are geared toward feeling what their grandchildren are feeling when they interact with them. If their grandchild is smiling, they’re feeling the child’s joy. And if their grandchild is crying, they’re feeling the child’s pain and distress.”

Researchers noted that, in contrast, a different area of the brain indicating cognitive empathy was activated when the grandmothers saw their adult children.


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“Emotional empathy is when you’re able to feel what someone else is feeling, but cognitive empathy is when you understand at a cognitive level what someone else is feeling and why,” Rilling said.

The study posited that the grandmothers are cognitively responding emotionally to the traits of young children, as the unrelated children still elicited a level of emotional response.

“Young children have likely evolved traits to be able to manipulate not just the maternal brain, but the grand-maternal brain,” Rilling said. “An adult child doesn’t have the same cute factor, so they may not elicit the same emotional response.” 

While Rilling noted that the study focused on physically and cognitively healthy grandmothers, the research is still significant in mapping the neural correlation to caregiving.

“Our results add to the evidence that there does seem to be a global parenting caregiving system in the brain,” Rilling said. “And that grandmothers’ responses to their grandchildren maps onto it.”


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Published on Nov 17, 2021