Brain scans of 50 grandmothers show strong emotional empathy towards their grandchildren.

There's nothing quite like the love between children and their grandmother—she's there to read them a bedtime story, cheer them on during big events, stand in as a last-minute babysitter, and so much more. However, if you've ever noticed a special bond between your mother and your kids that not even you can relate to, there might be a scientific explanation behind it. A recent study highlighted in CNN and published in the journal "Proceedings of the Royal Society B," found that the importance of grandmothers can be traced neurologically. "Unlike other primates, humans rely on one another to help raise their children, and often those offspring do better when they have other adults, like their grandmothers, involved in their lives," says lead study author James Rilling.

To obtain their findings, researchers worked with 50 grandmothers who reported having positive relationships with their grandchildren. Participants were also asked to complete a questionnaire to gauge their level of involvement in their grandchildren's lives. The women underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which measures changes in blood flow during brain activity. The participants were shown four images—one of their grandchild, one of an unknown child, one of an unknown adult, and finally one of the same-sex parent of their grandchild, such as their biological child or in-law.  

child running to hug grandmother
Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

While research in the past has examined maternal and paternal brain functions, this study is one of the first to give insight into how a grandmother's brain reacts to her grandchildren. Researchers found that when shown images of their biological grandchildren, grandmothers had a neurological response in the areas of the brain that are associated with emotional empathy and motivation. Interestingly, their findings also note that grandmothers showed stronger emotional empathy when looking at images of their grandchildren than they did with their own children.

However, the participants displayed stronger cognitive empathy when viewing photos of their biological children and in-laws than with their grandchildren. "Emotional empathy is feeling the emotions that another person is feeling. Cognitive empathy is understanding what someone is thinking or feeling and why," Rilling explains. This means grandparents are more geared to an emotional response when it comes to their grandchildren, despite their natural tendency to want to understand their own children's feelings.


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