It’s funny how many adults complain that their parents are nicer to their grandkids than they ever were to their own kids? So what gives? It turns out that grandparents’ brains actually react differently to their grandchildren. There is a reason they want to shower them with affection and bake them cookies till their stomachs hurt and their parents have to deal with sugar rush. Grandparents actually radiate happiness from jus seeing their grandchildren as they bring out their kindness and soft side. This also affects the children’s development. Here’s exactly what happens in both their brains according to a study.
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Even From Just Looking At A Picture
Did you know that a grandparent’s love for their grandchild is so strong that all it takes is a picture to activate the brain activity associated with their bond?
Science made a historical breakthrough when they scanned the brains of grandmothers while they were looking at photos of their grandchildren. The experiment helped them understand better the undeniable bond they share with their grandchildren and the strong influence it has on both the grandmas and their grandkids. It’s no surprise that when kids are asked about some of their happiest early memories, it’s going to grandma’s house. By the time they’re old enough to form fulfilling relationships, despite their grandma’s advanced age, the two keep a strong bond till the end of the grandmas’ days. It’s one of the only relationships where age is really just a number and the two can still be the best of friends.
How The Study Worked
The goal of the study was to figure out how grandmas impact their families when they’re active within their role. They got 50 participants to fill out questionnaires about their experiences as grandmothers. The questions varied asking about how much they spent with their grandkids, what they liked to do together and how much they felt like they loved them.
On top of the questionnaires, the study scanned the grandmas’ brains while they looked at pictures of their grandkids and compared it to how the brains reacted to random children. What they found was the brain regions associated with emotional empathy and movement lit up when the images showed their grandkids!
Emotional Empathy Just Came Naturally
The findings by Emory University mark some of the first on grandmaternal brain function. Grandmas are able to feel what their grandchildren feel. The happier the kids are, the happier they genuinely feel as well. And the second their grandkid is hurting, their heart also breaks. The researchers explain:
“What jumps out in the data is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy…That really 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.”
Now Let’s Compare To How Grandmas Feel About Their Own Kids
It turns out that the way we feel about our kids is different than our grandkids because different responses are activated. The study wanted to compare the brains of grandmas while viewing pictures of their grown children. Different areas of the brain lit up. While the grandkids lit up the area associated with emotional empathy, their own kids activated their cognitive empathy.
What this means is grandmas try to understand their children’s thoughts but don’t always take in how they would feel. It’s a more rational than emotional connection and doesn’t mean that they’re loved any less, just understood differently. This could also depend on their age. The research explains: “An adult child doesn’t have the same cute ‘factor,’ so they may not elicit the same emotional response.”
Grandmas Want To Be Involved In Raising Their Grandkids.
Because of the cognitive empathy that is activated, grandmothers likely will want to be more involved with caring for and raising their grandchildren. This makes them an integral part of the family system and can really help parents by taking off some of the stress and responsibility.
“Our 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,” says the research.
It All Makes Sense Now
While grandparents had their own turn raising children, the experience feels different when it’s their grandkids: “Many of them also said how nice it is to not be under as much time and financial pressure as they were when raising their children…They get to enjoy the experience of being a grandmother much more than they did being parents,” say the researchers.
What’s heartwarming about this study is that it brought up fond memories within the researchers themselves as they remembered how their own grandmas always welcomed them with open arms and treated them with warmth.
The Older Human Brain Needs More Attention
Studies like this show the benefits of studying the older human brain. Sadly, it mostly tends to be studied for age-related disorders like dementia. But really, the older the brain is, the more life it has experienced and the more information it could actually give us.
Studying the brain functions of grandmothers is just one representation of our social lives. The researcher Minwoo Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in Emory’s Department of Anthropology adds: “It’s an important aspect of the human experience that has been largely left out of the field of neuroscience.” While we still have a long way to go on the human brain, we at least now have evidence that there is a parental caregiving system in the brain. We are capable of so much love and care!
The Grandmother Hypothesis
Knowing how grandmas’ brains react to their grandchildren is not only significant because it shows how much love they have to give. It has a direct impact on families that is labeled as the “grandmother hypothesis” Basically there is a direct effect on the mother and primary caregivers too. The researcher points out: “We often assume that fathers are the most important caregivers next to mothers, but that’s not always true,” but “In some cases, grandmothers are the primary helper.”
What this means is that grandmas can take off some of the responsibility which could mean that the mothers will have more time and energy to have more children and live well past their own reproductive years to return the favor
A Glue Across Cultures
The role of grandmothers seems to be just as impactful across cultures. Another study on traditional communities found that grandmas that were involved in these communities led to more grandchildren being born in a shorter timeframe. This is further proof that grandmas are like a glue that not only holds families together but helps them move forward.
It strengthens the bonds not only between them and their grandchildren but gives the space for the other relationships within the family to flourish as well. Think of how many times grandma babysat so that mom and dad could go on a date and keep their bond alive as well!
Give Your Grandma Or Grandchild A Big Hug!
We don’t think you needed a study to know how much you love your grandchild or how much your grandma loved you. Her actions surely spoke for themselves but knowing exactly what drives her love is a step forward for mankind in understanding the human drive and motivation. After all, we’re all capable of so much kindness and love that can actually change the world if we let it.
So whatever you do today, go hug your grandma or your grandchild. Or simply go show some love and kindness to the next person you see.
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Higher Perspectives Author is one of the authors writing for Higher Perspectives