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Science in the News: Are Grandmas Hard-Wired to Empathize with Their Grandchildren?

Science in the News: Are Grandmas Hard-Wired to Empathize with Their Grandchildren?

Particularly during the holiday season, we’re aware of the essential role grandmothers can play in caring for their grandchildren. For those of us lucky enough to have had a close relationship with our grandmothers—or to have been able to rely on grandmotherly figures in our own child-rearing—this bond can feel at times stronger than any between relatives.

So, this week, in honor of the nurturing relationships we celebrate during this time of year, we’re looking at the findings of a recently published study on the attachment between grandmothers and their grandchildren as it has been measured in terms of neurological activity. Are grandmothers actually hard-wired to be caring and empathetic toward their grandchildren? Read on to find out!

Background

Previous studies of other cultures have pointed at an evolutionary benefit of human females living far past their fertile years: increased grandchild survival. For example, a study of the traditional Hadza people of Tanzania showed that foraging by grandmothers improves the nutritional status of their grandchildren. Another study showed that the presence of grandmothers decreases their daughters' interbirth intervals and increases the overall number of grandchildren.

In more contemporary cultures, evidence is now indicating that grandmothers positively engaging with their grandchildren is associated with those children having better outcomes on a range of measures, including academic, social, behavior and physical health. So, researchers at Emory University decided to look at the brains of healthy grandmothers to see how the benefits they provide to their families may be reflected in different areas of the brain using questionnaires and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.

Method

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The study consisted first of a questionnaire that aimed to measure grandmothers’ degree of involvement with and attachment to their grandchild by asking the 50 participants about their experiences as grandmothers. Participants provided details including how much time they spend with their grandchildren, activities they do together, and how much affection they feel for them. Next, the participants underwent fMRI to measure their brain function as they viewed pictures of their grandchild, an unknown child, the same-sex parent of the grandchild, and an unknown adult.

Results

A couple notable results shaped the researchers’ conclusion that emotional empathy may be a key component of grandmaternal responses to their grandchildren: After controlling for age and familiarity of stimuli, viewing pictures of their grandchild  activated areas involved with emotional empathy (insula and secondary somatosensory cortex) and movement (motor cortex and supplementary motor area). Additionally, grandmothers who more strongly activated areas involved with empathy (temporo-parietal junction and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) when viewing pictures of their grandchild indicated a greater desire for involvement in caring for their grandchild when completing the questionnaire. With this said, one limitation to the study is that the participants skewed toward mentally and physically healthy women who are high-functioning in terms of the ability to grandmother.

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Says James Rilling, Emory professor of anthropology and lead author of the study: “[The data that stood out to us] suggest . . . 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."

Furthermore, the results “add to the evidence that there does seem to be a global parenting caregiving system in the brain, and that grandmothers' responses to their grandchildren maps onto it," Rilling adds.

Sources

Emory University. (2021, Nov. 16). How grandmothers' brains react to the sight of their grandchildren. Medical Xpress. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-11-grandmothers-brains-react-sight-grandchildren.html

Rilling, J. K., Gonzalez, A., & Lee, M. (2021). Supplementary methods, analyses, figures and tables from The neural correlates of grandmaternal caregiving. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.17004518

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