Do hormones mess with your head?
December 16, 2005 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any experiences with pregnancy and postpartum hormones having a negative effect on mathematical or logic skills?

I work in a pretty male-dominated field. Because I’m looking to find ways to integrate childbearing into an academic career I attend mentoring meetings between female graduate students and faculty. I recently had an informal lunch discussion with just a few faculty members where they talked about how their research suffered after giving birth, with one losing out on tenure as a result. They were very insistent that the changes in their thinking were due to hormones rather than the lack of sleep and stress that come with a newborn. Mostly, they expressed that the theories they devised were lacking and any research they did explore ended up not making sense on review. They also emphasized that they were just fine with teaching and administrative work.

I’m glad to have people who will be honest with me about what happened to them, but at the same time I feel like this might be anecdotal. Several of the people I look up to most have children, and I can’t tell where child bearing has affected their body of work. However, I can’t imagine many female faculty members admitting something like this when most have to fight for acceptance in their field.

I know lots of faculty members who have managed to have a family and an academic career, but it can be hard to ask someone if their work suffered due to postpartum hormones. This is a very sensitive subject and I am aware that hormones can be very subjective. However, I feel like this information is very relevant to some decisions I’ll need to make in a few years and I would like to hear from other Mefites about their experiences. I am especially interested in hearing first-hand experiences or from spouses. Also, if anyone knows about any scientific studies relevant to this discussion I would be happy to see them.

I know that this is the sort of thing that creates a tough environment for female faculty members, but I need honest answers so that I can try to have a contingency plan for my research.
posted by Alison to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
obviously you're aware that anecdotal evidence is not much use (and how would you design a formal study that removed environmental effects when a child changes your environment so much? perhaps by comparing changes against those seen in stay-at-home fathers?). i just tried searching with google scholar, but found only studies of childhood intelligence. anyway, one possible causal link is postpartum depression - it's pretty easy to find papers that link depression to a drop in iq measurements.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:37 PM on December 16, 2005

This may be just one more anectdote, but in my experience, hormones do indeed mess with your head. My situation was not one related to pregnancy, but having an out-of-control thyroid (which produces certain hormones). Over the span of a couple months, I became incredibly forgetful... way beyond what every normal person experiences. I also lost track of what people were saying really easily. The weirdest thing was that I had a really hard time articulating what I wanted to say. I've always been pretty articulate, but all of a sudden I suffered from a bizarre "it's on the tip of my tongue" disease and almost got to a point where I was stuttering. Once I went on meds, it all went back to normal -- it was definitely a physical cause and 100% related to out-of-whack hormone levels.
posted by zharptitsa at 2:40 PM on December 16, 2005

That would make a very interesting research project. I'm a grad student in forensic psychology, so this isn't really my area, but what about conducting your own study? Alternatively, if you don't have the knowledge/experience for doing that, what about bringing up the idea with someone who does? I think people would like to know.
posted by Trinkers at 2:51 PM on December 16, 2005

Not much out there on pubmed (three years in the lab can save you three hours at the library).

In rats, at least, there are functional changes in the brain after childbirth.

In humans, there appears that there may be congitive defects after childbirth.

Regardless, this sounds like a very interesting avenue of research.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:03 PM on December 16, 2005

I have a 6 month old and I work as a nurse practitioner in a hospital. I felt brain dead while I was pregnant. I have no proof, but I am sure it was hormonal. I had difficulty concentrating and doing simple math. Things I would normally compute in my head I would check with a calculator. This has only gotten worse since I have given birth. I think that the sleep deprivation and stress of motherhood compound the hormonal component. I am breast feeding so my body has not yet returned to my pre-pregnancy hormonal state. I can do my job well, but everything just seems a little bit more difficult.
My career is important to me. Before I got pregnant I wondered if I should have children. Having my son has been the greatest thing, I never could have imagined. Other mothers told me how great it would be, but you can't really know until you experience it yourself. With that said, balancing motherhood and a career is really hard, but in my opinion, so worth it. In the end it is such a personal decision. Good luck!
posted by peeps! at 3:11 PM on December 16, 2005

I've seen some recent research that says this is a myth: pregnant women think that they're less intelligent, but they're actually smarter. I bet any slip in job performance is more a function of sleep deprivation and negative stereotypes in male dominated fields. Talk to women in female-dominated departments before you make any conclusions.
posted by footnote at 3:17 PM on December 16, 2005

PurplePorpoise--I thought it was 3 hours in the library will save you 3 years in the lab. However, I just survived my first finals as a grad student in chemistry and I may be misreading a joke you were making, so if I am, sorry!

No anecdotes here, but I just wanted to say that I would love to find out the answer to this question, since my field is extremely male-dominated as well, and I am worried about when I will be able to fit in having kids. Stories like this scare me--I need and use every math and science skill I have and would hate to see a lessening of any of them due to hormones from pregnancy.
posted by rio at 3:52 PM on December 16, 2005

rio - congrats! Yeah, I was poking fun at the fact that if one only spent the time to see if someone else has already answered your question, you wouldn't need to go and answer it for yourself.

Interesting that the book that footnote refers to directly contradicts the findings in my second link. Of course, this is probably from differences in methodology (when they measured memory, &c).

One difficulty that just occured to me - if you were to get the funds and ethics approval to conduct such a study - you're going to have a lot of difficulty with your controls. If you're looking at hormone levels (hmm, estrogen replacement therapy post-menopause seems to improve cognition over post-menopausal women without ERT - and there are a lot of studies indicating that estrogen hass neuroprotective propterties.) you're going to have to control for what time of the month your control population is at at the time of testing/assay.

As for "it's just stress" or "stress -> altered hormones," you're going to have to find a control group of women who are chronically stressed (medical students/interns are really good controls, generally, but since you're assessing cognition you'd be introducing bias - same for shift-workers only you may be skewing in the other direction).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 4:11 PM on December 16, 2005

I'm pretty sure I've read that clinically depressed people have been shown to be less adept at logic and such, in measurable ways (tests).

It's a tangential angle to think about, with the possibility of postpartum depression.
posted by teece at 4:41 PM on December 16, 2005

Maybe they're just less confident and thus feel like they're stupider.

Depression causes a drop in self-esteem, (more specifically, it causes people to stop believing that they are better then they really are)
posted by delmoi at 4:51 PM on December 16, 2005

If you had enough money, you could just pay grad students to take hormones so that it was as if they had given birth. This would prevent weird effects from not getting enough sleep and so on.

But that would probably take a lot of money...
posted by delmoi at 4:54 PM on December 16, 2005

Back when I was a new mom, we all called it "milk brain," referring to our lactating state, of course. Those of us who worked in scientific/high tech fields (I'm a lapsed electrical engineer myself) somehow could no longer easily calculate something as piddly as the tip on a restaurant tab. That being said, though, we could hold a conversation and somehow had magic eyes in the back of our head to keep a baby from crawling off the bed or grazing in the cat food. So maybe we didn't lose our analytical abilities, they were just temporarily diverted.

I also lose my perfect pitch when pregnant (what I'm sure is a C is routinely a B). Very frustrating for a singer but luckily it came back every time. Can't explain that one.
posted by DawnSimulator at 5:02 PM on December 16, 2005

Oh - DUH, porpoise. Test the women before they get pregnant, at various times when they're pregnant, and at various times after they've given birth.

Now, I guess the trick would be to use a test where prior testing doesn't affect subsequent results (and it may be interesting to test various types of cognition - memory, spacial, problem-solving, &c).

A good paired control might be the women's spouses which might delineat between hormones and general stress (under the assumption that both parents will have similar-to-each-other enough levels of stress compared to other parent-pairings).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 6:38 PM on December 16, 2005

DawnSimulator, your vocal system changes enormously while you're pregnant (laryngopathia gravidarum). Along with all the obvious abdominal changes, the hormones often lower your voice. I'm not surprised that when you go for what's usually a C, you're coming out a bit lower. I am surprised it's a perfect half-step.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:24 PM on December 16, 2005

My thyroid issues messed with my memory and cognition a LOT. Though others said it wasn't noticeable, it was noticeable to me. After I began taking a synthroid, I noticed the positive changes in my mood and cognition.

Pregnancy causes many changes in the function of the thyroid. It's been a real trick keeping my meds balanced during the different trimesters of my current pregnancy so that my thyroid is functioning as it should. I have to have my TSH tested at every visit to the OB/Gyn. This will also change rapidly once I give birth and I will have to keep being tested for a period of some months into the postpartum period. Thyroid function is affected by and can affect hormones, as well as complicate vulnerability to depression. These might help to explain some of cognition issues immediately surrounding pregnancy and birth, but everyone is so different and our bodies are complex.

Although unscientific and anecdotal, there are examples of brilliant women in the sciences with children. So, having children cannot be entirely predictive of changing very smart women into women unable to function cognitively in their chosen field.
posted by jeanmari at 8:39 PM on December 16, 2005

Booksandlibretti, I'm not sure the change was reflected in the relationship between what I wanted to sing and what came out. I just know that my tiny little slice of happiness as a human pitch pipe was tossed out for most of a year each time when I consistently said "Oh, this is a C" and then it always proved to be a B. It sucked big time. But, alas. Breedin' days are done.
posted by DawnSimulator at 8:58 PM on December 16, 2005

Alison, this is a very good question. In that, it probably has no definite answer. Pre/post-partum physiological reactions are extremely different among women but even among different childbirths for the same woman.

On the other hand, logic and mathematical skill as well as productivity and efficiency are not only physiological but perhaps mainly mental (oh, and then there are the feedbacks betwen the two). How well can you overcome being tired or adjust your schedule to the baby's schedule so that you are not as much tired? How much help (emotional or physical) do you get from your surroundings?

My own personal experience: I got wif I am pregnant the day I started my post-doc (environ pretty much like yours). I did not want to take a (unpaid) leave, so I bit the bullet. I was lucky: I live close to work, I have a very supporting hubbie, I do not have to move much. I was working till the day before I went into labor. I was as focused as never before in my (professional) life. And that got me in a nice pace even to this day -2 yrs later.

Regarding your opening question though, yes, hormones did affect me a lot at specific periods. During the 8th month, I recall, I had hard time concentrating very long and simple calculations or even code writing would take longer than usual. After birth, I had the same feeling only when tired. And I really had no post-partum depression or any other pregnancy-related complications.

Ok, I am finishing somewhere here with one more thought: No woman should try hard to be a superwoman. Perhaps, she can try to fit as many of the things she loves doing with her new life but be prepared to bow out at any time (take a leave, cut down work-hours etc) if it gets too hard/unpleasant. And be able to pick up again later. No questions asked.

posted by carmina at 9:28 PM on December 16, 2005

Interesting that the book that footnote refers to directly contradicts the findings in my second link. Of course, this is probably from differences in methodology (when they measured memory, &c).

well, not really - your link was about IQ, and footnote's link was about less quantifiable kinds of "intelligence" like "motivation, resilience, emotional intelligence", etc. She may make a good case for the increase of those other skills and even for how they can improve one's work, but if we're going for straight logic & math skills, it doesn't really seem to refute the argument...

very interesting question, anyway.
posted by mdn at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2005

Thanks for the responses, even though the answer to my question is 'maybe' right now. I love askMefi.
posted by Alison at 7:19 PM on December 17, 2005

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