Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] Why you should high-five grandma

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] Why you should high-five grandma

Illustration by David Castuciano

'Human grandmas and a few remarkable mammals we know of, so far, defy biology’s imperative. Why?'

Becoming a grandmother is wonderful – one moment you are just a mother and next, you are all wise and pre-historic.

Pam Brown

Time is a first-rate alchemist. It stretches all things, including planets, mountains, animals, and transforms them. This is especially interesting when it comes to living beings when you subject them to a lifetime. Let us look at what time does to a female when they become grandmothers.

The general rule in the animal kingdom is that grandparents do not play the role that they do in human lives. Humans, compared to other primates, take a really long time to mature. They spend an inordinate proportion of their lives being cared for by their parents. We also live around other members of our families, even if they are a generation or more removed from us. We call them “grandparents.”

From a purely biological standpoint, it makes sense for the male of any species to live beyond their prime since they continue to emit some dust from their family-issued crown jewels, albeit fogged by age. But for females, it does not make biological sense for them to live much longer after their child-bearing stage.  But they do live generally about 30 years beyond menopause. Human grandmas and a few remarkable mammals we know of, so far, defy biology’s imperative. Why?

Because they endure with purpose. A recent study scanned the brains of about 50 grandmas looking at pictures of their grandkids, other kids, the parents of their grandkids, and of other adults. They found that of course, grandmas’ brain parts for emotional empathy – (feeling what the others are feeling) are a lot more activated when they saw photos of their own grandkids. The grandma’s brain parts for another kind of empathy lit up when beholding photos of their own children (daughter-in-law or son-in-law) but it is the kind of empathy that sits on understanding what they are feeling which is more complex. 

This could explain why the path to grandma from her grandchildren is more direct and straightforward – it is emotional. With their own children, parents get into the rubric that is involved in “understanding’” (scientists call this “cognitive empathy”) so there is the scaffold of reasoning with feelings. This is also probably why your mother behaves rather “loosely” with your kids – a behavior that was extra-terrestrial to you when you were growing up in her care.

Both emotional and cognitive responses shape the role of grandmas, long after their biological “usefulness” expire. This is why they would immediately go rescue their grandkids from their parents or other things, take them in their care when their parents have to be elsewhere, and would generously offer time-tested insights and warnings of “dead-ends” and even give up their own stakes in life for their grandkids. These all generally help make their grandkids thrive.

While this role of grandmas is rare in the rest of the animal kingdom, we have seen it a few so far, such as in elephants and orcas. They have carved out a purpose in the lives of the young that are inextricable to the latter’s survival. For elephants, this study revealed that the survival of elephant calves is much higher when grandma elephants are around than when no grandma elephant is around. These grandma elephants take care of the calves when the mom is away. Grandma elephants even employ and teach their grandcalves how to get out of a mud pit – scooped from her own time-stomped experiences.

For orcas, this study showed that it is the grandmas that lead the collective movement in the deep vast waters – a great working depiction of “matriarchy” as a concept. They even keep the calves in tow while the parents dive for food. They also take the lead in the hunt when the supply of food is especially low – matriarchs to the rescue in crisis. 

Grandma elephants and orcas, just like human grandmas, work with time by infusing it with purpose, and whether as cause or effect, stretch biological time for themselves, even without the sparkle of their own fertility lasting as long as the life-long dust supply from their male counterparts.

So the next time you spend time with grandma, high-five her knowing that she has defied the rules of pure biological time. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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