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There’s no denying the special connection found between grandmother and grandchild. And up until recently, there wasn’t a lot of scientific research that showed exactly how special it was.

In a recent study carried out by Emory University, and published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers observed the brains of grandmothers as they looked at their grandchildren. By doing this, they were able to truly explore this special connection.

“What jumps out in the data is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” explained James Rilling, Emory University professor of anthropology, as well as the lead author of the study.

Continuing, Rilling says, “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.”

In contrast, they observed the brains of the grandmothers as they looked at images of their children. What they found was that the areas of the brain linked to cognitive empathy lit up, instead of emotional empathy.

Based on this data, it could be said that the grandmother’s brains lit up in those areas because they are trying to understand their child’s feelings, but differently. Additionally, it could and most likely is because of the age difference between child and grandchild.

“Young children have likely evolved traits to be able to manipulate not just the maternal brain, but the grand maternal brain,” Rilling says. “An adult child doesn’t have the same cute ‘factor,’ so they may not elicit the same emotional response.”

There’s no refuting how important a present grandmother is in the life of her grandchild. Even Minwoo Lee, who co-authored the study explains how this study shows just that.

“Here, we’re highlighting the brain functions of grandmothers that may play an important role in our social lives and development,”  and continuing, she said, It’s an important aspect of the human experience that has been largely left out of the field of neuroscience.”

It’s typical in the family unit for each person to play a role in the process of raising children. While many focus on the mother and father’s role, Rilling believes the grandmother also plays a central role.

“In some cases, grandmothers are the primary helper.” He said.

To carry out the study, they have 50 participants complete surveys about their experiences as a grandmother. Additionally, they conducted brain scans as they viewed images of their grandchildren. On top of that, they had them look at images of unknown children, their children, and an adult stranger.

When viewing images of their grandchild, they had the area of the brain associated with emotional empathy and movement light up, showing how they wanted to take an active role in raising their grandchildren.

“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 map onto it,” Rilling says.

Of course, I don’t believe any of us needed a study to tell us how important our grandmothers are, but it was still fascinating to look over this study and its findings.