Grandmothers Have Emotional Empathy Response When Shown Images of Grandchildren

Study results show more activity in brain areas affecting sympathy and movement when the women viewed the photos.

Grandmothers had a stronger activation in the area of the brain that is associated with emotional empathy when viewing images of their grandchildren, results of a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B show.

"[The activation] 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," James Rilling, professor of anthropology at Emory University, said in a statement.

The results show that there was more activity in brain areas that affected emotional empathy and movement when viewing photos of their grandchildren than other images.

Additionally, grandmothers were more strongly activated in these regions when viewing images of their grandchildren than when fathers viewed images of their children. Grandmothers who reported a grater desire to be involved with caring for their grandchildren had stronger activations.

Children can manipulate maternal brains but also grand maternal brains, while adult children cannot illicit the same emotional response because they are not considered “cute” in the same way children are, Rilling said.

Investigators had 50 individuals complete questionnaires about their experiences as grandmothers that included how much time they spend with their grandchildren, the activities they do together, and how much affection they feel for them.

“We're highlighting the brain functions of grandmothers that may play an important role in our social lives and development," Minwoo Lee, PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at Emory, said in the statement. "It's an important aspect of the human experience that has been largely left out of the field of neuroscience."

A limitation of the study was skewed toward mentally and physically healthy women who are high-functioning grandmothers.

Reference

How grandmothers' brains react to the sight of their grandchildren. Science Daily. News release. November 16, 2021. Accessed November 30, 2021. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/11/211116201530.htm