‘Grandma Brain’: The science behind unique bond with grandchildren

Research sheds light on the neurological connection between grandmothers and their grandchildren

If you feel an overwhelming sense of love and devotion toward your grandchildren, you’re not alone. Many grandmothers describe this feeling as “love on steroids,” and a recent neurological study reveals a scientific explanation for this bond, dubbed “Grandma Brain,” Good Housekeeping reported.

The study, led by Dr. James Rilling, a professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, involved scanning the brains of 50 women as they viewed photos of their grankids 3-12 years old. The results were striking.

“What really jumps out in the data is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” Rilling told Good Housekeeping. “That suggests that grandmothers are geared towards 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.”

The grandmothers’ brains did not respond similarly when they viewed pictures of their adult children, however. Instead, cognitive empathy — which enables a person to understand what another is feeling and why —was activated. When looking at photos of their grandchildren, however, the women experienced emotional empathy, which allows a person to actually feel what someone else is feeling.

Rilling’s study, conducted in 2021, is just the beginning of exploring the biology of grandparents, an area he said he considers “unexplored territory.” His team is currently analyzing saliva samples to determine if grandmothers have higher levels of oxytocin, “the love hormone,” compared to women of the same age who are not grandmothers. They also plan to study the brains of grandfathers, according to Good Housekeeping.

From an anthropological perspective, Rilling speculates that close grandmaternal bonds may have evolved to make it easier for parents to reproduce and continue the species. Simply put, having help from grandparents may encourage parents to have more children.

This deep connection between women and their grandchildren is not only scientifically fascinating but also emotionally profound. As Connecticut grandmother Nancy Claus explained to Good Housekeeping, “I see little bits of my mother in Olivia already.” Claus, speaking of her 2-year-old granddaughter, added: “I don’t want to burst into singing ‘Circle of Life’ here, but it’s seeing your genes passing on and moving into the future. Seeing the next generation, the continuity, just brings a contentment.”