July-August 2007

The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter.  By Katherine Ellison. Basic Books. 279 pages. $25.

Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has collected an impressive body of research pertaining to the physiological roots behind mankind's strongest bond and has documented her own maternal experience. She wrote this interpretive work after becoming a mother at age 38, building the text on personal conclusions and respected investigations, juxtaposing delightful parental vignettes with numerous scientific studies. This entertaining technique saves the narrative from the stiff academic posturing of many textbooks. Happily, the author's humor equalizes the weight of so much scientific data that might otherwise put new parents to sleep.

The book begins with a discussion of the patronizing old belief that a "mommy brain" is somewhat batty due to sleep deprivation, endless interruptions, reduced adult interactions, and loss of control over one's daily routine. The sheer corporal encumbrances of motherhood, coupled with women's roles as primary caretakers of extended families, often appear boundless. Even though some mothers may bravely deny it, their tender, tiny tyrants' needs diminish leisure time and limit social engagements.

The brain studies offer data on the biological changes in a new mother's brain chemistry. There is plenty of evidence showing that sudden new behaviors initiate brain changes focusing on protection of fragile new life, chiefly by reorganizing priorities. Researchers refer to these changes as brain plasticity. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies and hormone analyses of new mothers further suggest that a neuro-chemical brew initiated by childbirth and nursing endows them with heightened sensory perception and enduring energy. Efficiency increases, multi-tasking becomes habitual, and an instinctive alertness delivers ongoing safeguards for youngsters throughout childhood. The boosted "mommy brain" is shown to foster self-discipline, planning, and alternative strategizing, and it keeps functioning on all cylinders throughout the tough days and nights of infancy and beyond. Yes, these "mommy brain" attributes are broad generalizations, but they rest on competent data. Like many scientific studies, some of those cited are controversial, but the bulk of them make the compelling case that much strong mothering comes courtesy of Mother Nature's physiological foundations. Ellison includes other research involving studies of rats and monkeys that confirm a biological basis for good mothering. High-octane "mommy brains" seem to wear well, delivering fortitude and patience.

Discussions of motherhood's emotional skills, termed "emotional intelligence," are quite appealing. This ensemble of mothering smartness includes empathy, self-restraint, conflict resolution, and the calm management of emotions. Ellison's war bag also carries work endorsing kid-related networks that connect parents to the wider world. This particular mosaic of extended relationships yields benefits in brain plasticity and stress reduction. (Surely it was ever thus; but lo, a time-honored notion becomes hard science.) Other studies show that new behaviors, without the chemical bounties of childbirth, initiate brain plasticity in adoptive mothers, dads, and other caregivers, supplying the motivation that drives responsibility, planning, and productivity. This is an innovative twist on the old nature-versus-nurture argument applied to children (the evidence pointing in reverse to adults as recipients of nurturing benefits that biologically promote "mommy brains").

The Mommy Brain is a notable source for hard scientific data demonstrating that mother-love is more than just a sentimental heart's desire. Additionally, the evidence vividly supports what mothers have long recognized: Care of the young yields incalculable benefits in return. Science now catches up with what good souls have always known: The sacred mother/child bond -- that mighty maternal responsibility -- is also a most sublime earthly reward.

- Mary McWay Seaman



Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't.  By Stephen Prothero. HarperSanFrancisco. 304 pages. $24.95.

In November 1980 I was stationed in Egypt with the U.S. Army on a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force exercise with the Egyptian Military. We had invited our Egyptian counterparts to a steak dinner prepared by our field cooks. Piled on the hot table next to the steaks were well-cooked pieces of Spam. This was typical U.S. Army fare, but I shuddered because Spam is made of pork. If our Muslim guests were to discover this, it would have been seen as a major insult. I did not say anything, but I was astounded that, with all the preparation we had done for this trip, nobody had told the cooks that, for religious reasons, our Muslim guests could not eat pork.

This is one of the problems that Stephen Prothero, Chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University, discusses in his interesting and accessible book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't. He argues that modern Americans do not have a working knowledge of religion as an important part of different cultures and that this causes us no end of trouble in dealing with people who practice faiths unfamiliar to us. For this reason, Prothero is a strong advocate for teaching "religious studies" in our schools. He is not speaking of theology or catechesis, which indoctrinates one into a particular faith, but religious literacy, "which refers to the ability to understand and use in one's day-to-day life the basic building blocks of religious tradition -- their key terms, symbols, doctrines, practices, sayings, metaphors and narrative." Without a basic working knowledge of the religions of the world, we cannot hope to understand our global neighbors or to interact with them with tact and integrity. To love our neighbor we must first understand him. To that end, Prothero includes a substantial glossary that gives a broad overview of key terms in the beliefs and practices of the world's major religions.

But Prothero goes further. He deplores the fact that children in America are not even being exposed to the basics of the Christian religion. He gives a terse but compelling overview of education in America and how interfaith squabbles and the rise of emotionalism and anti-intellectualism have led to the current state of confusion about what is permissible in American public education.

From the very beginning of the American republic, Calvinist Protestantism and the study of the Bible were essential parts of basic education. As time went on, growing religious diversity in the U.S. forced the dominant Protestant majority to create compromises that would allow disparate groups within the Protestant fold, along with Catholics and Jews, to attend public schools without having their integrity or their heartfelt beliefs questioned or maligned. These early efforts still attempted to inculcate basic religious morals in the classroom. But, as the diversity in American culture increased, the acceptable social compromise shifted to something more secular. Educators, fearful of breaching the supposed "wall of separation" between Church and State, eventually distanced themselves from any discussion of religion in the schools. Some, like John Dewey and Horace Mann, became fanatics about it, trying to purge virtually all religious references from the curriculum.

But how can a student understand American literature and history without a working knowledge of the Bible? In public speeches, presidents and politicians are constantly using biblical metaphors. How can students understand the history of the pilgrims, the Civil Rights movement, and the prolife cause without reference to their religious underpinnings? The Christian religion has been an important motivation for Americans since our nation's founding. Prothero gives reasoned arguments and references to help return the academic study of religion to the public schools and to recognize religion as an important element in human life.

- Arthur C. Sippo





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