Congratulations to Isobel Cohen, 33, who has just graduated from Cambridge University with first-class honors in English — taking her exams 28 hours after having a baby. She sat papers on practical criticism and Shakespeare, and the Greek Tragedies in a hospital dressing gown and slippers.
Now that the results are in and baby Beatrice is six weeks old, it is just slightly annoying that Cohen is back-pedaling from her achievement with the standard cliches about “mumnesia.”
“I wonder how I held it together and got through them because now I’m into full-blown ‘nappy brain,’” she said
“While my concentration and memory were not as good as they might have been, I could still do things I needed to do and retain enough information to write decent essays,” she said.
Experts disagree about how childbirth affects intellectual ability. A 2010 study by the US National Institute of Mental Health found that new moms’ brains “bulk up as they cope with the new demands babies bring.”
They scanned the brains of 19 mothers and a comparison of images taken two to four weeks before birth and three to four months after, showed a significant increase in brain growth.
On the other hand, higher levels of estrogen and progesterone in pregnancy are thought to have a negative effect on the parts of the brain governing spatial memory.
What about the benign idiocy we think of as “preg head?” That is most likely down to sleep deprivation, which would not have kicked at the time Cohen sat her papers.
The most interesting part of this story? That her achievement has been reported as an extraordinary mental feat. When what she did physically was a million times more impressive.
“I was sitting in a hospital room in my gown, attached to a catheter. It was painful,” she said.
First in English? No sweat. Sitting on a chair for three hours? Give this person a medal.