Grandmothers find it easier to empathize with grandchildren than their adult children: study

Researchers also identified increases in cognitive function in the brains of grandmothers who spend a lot of time with their grandkids.

Chris Arnold 3 minute read November 17, 2021
Grandma's Hands

Researchers say this type of study on older brains is rare when not looking at dementia or other disorders related to aging. (GETTY)

Scientists have found a way to prove there is a bond between grandmothers and their grandchildren.

By scanning grandmothers’ brains while looking at their grandchildren, researchers from Emory University in Atlanta found a significant increase in cognitive function. The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences research journal. 

“What really jumps out in the data is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” James Rilling, Emory professor of anthropology and lead author of the study said in a release. “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.”

When it comes to their own adult children, the same participants were found to have an increase in brain activity in the cognitive energy area, as opposed to the emotional area. This could mean that it is easier for grandparents to empathize with their grandchildren than their direct next of kin.

Another interesting finding is that children may have developed traits that help them manipulate not only their parents, but also their grandparents, Riling says. “An adult child doesn’t have the same cute factor, so they may not elicit the same emotional response.” 

For the study, 50 participants completed questionnaires about their experiences as grandmothers, including details about how often they see their grandchildren, what they do when they are together, and how much affection they feel. Researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the grandmothers’ brain activity while looking at pictures of their grandkids, children they did not know, one of their grandkids’ parents, and a random adult. 

As the grandmothers looked at the pictures of their grandchildren, most of the participants showed more activity in the areas of the brain involved with empathy and movement, when compared to the other photos. 

Humans are what is known as co-operative breeders, meaning as a species, humans usually get help caring for children. It is usually assumed that the father (or a co-parent) is the secondary helper when raising offspring, but that is not always the case, Riling says. In some cases, grandmothers are in fact the ones who are second. 

Recently, studies have shown that there is a system developed for parenting and care-giving in our brains, Riling says. “We wanted to see how grandmothers might fit into that pattern.”

Researchers say this type of study on older brains is rare when not looking at dementia or other disorders related to aging.

“Here, we’re highlighting the brain functions of grandmothers that may play an important role in our social lives and development,” Minwoo Lee, a PhD candidate in Emory’s department of anthropology says. “It’s an important aspect of the human experience that has been largely left out of the field of neuroscience.”

As for grandfathers, research remains to be done in that area, Lee says, adding that the difference in brain functions in grandparents among cultures would be interesting to observe. 

Studies have shown that children with emotionally available grandparents tend to develop better social and behavioural skills, and are more likely to succeed in school. 

According to Statistics Canada, there were almost 600,000 grandparents living in the same households as their grandchildren as of 2015, the most recent data available. At the time, that number accounted for just eight per cent of the seven million grandparents in Canada.


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