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Low Power Mode: The Brain Impact of Women’s Mental Load
Written by Dr Faye Begeti
While it's well-acknowledged that women, on average, shoulder more unpaid labour than men—from household chores to childcare and even those overlooked tasks at the office—it's the invisible neurological toll of this ‘mental juggling act’ that often goes unnoticed, perhaps even by women themselves. As a practicing neurology doctor and neuroscientist, but also the mother to two young girls, I'm uniquely positioned to observe this phenomenon and it is something that resonates deeply both on a professional and a personal level. We often tally this imbalance in terms of 'extra hours' worked, but we must also confront the hidden cognitive costs that come from shouldering multiple responsibilities. Far from being simply about time pressure, this is about the effects on women’s brains and the considerable consequences that have the potential to hold them back.
Low power mode
To truly appreciate the impact of this increased mental load we first need to understand how the brain works. Right behind our forehead is a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the executive brain – the boss of all brain regions. Its responsibilities include complex decision-making, planning for the future, focusing our attention, and managing emotions arising from the emotional parts of our brain.
Our executive brain does not have unlimited power and the toll of mentally-taxing responsibilities can compound. This was clearly demonstrated in a key study where participants were assigned cognitive tasks of varying difficulty. In this study, participants were presented with random individual letters on a screen and split into separate groups. One group was asked to recall whether the letter that was presented was the same or different to the one shown immediately before whereas another group was asked to remember whether it was the same as three letters before – the latter being a notably more challenging task. Scanning the participants’ brains after six hours of these depleting tasks showed that those who did the complex version of the task had reduced activation of the executive.1 Their brain was essentially showing signs of fatigue.
This state of mental drain is something that I refer to as ‘low power mode’. I deliberately use this analogy as we all know how our devices limit their functionality, operating at reduced capacity to save battery power when we’ve used them excessively and not charged them enough. Turns out that our brain does something similar and, when it enters its own version of low power mode, a similar downshift in performance occurs. The executive brain reduces activation and, as a result, our executive function deteriorates – this means that our attention, working memory, focus, and emotion regulation all suffer. Situations that would normally be manageable with a fully charged executive suddenly become difficult to handle.
The shift into this low power mode has real implications.
Research shows that, in this mentally drained state, people often opt for immediate gratification, choosing short-term rewards over long-term gains, something that may be explained by accumulation of the neurotransmitter glutamate.2
One of the hallmark features of low power mode is a marked reduction in our ability to focus. We become prone to self-interruptions, where we essentially distract ourselves mid-task without a clear reason, hampering our productivity. And here's the kicker: this behaviour, over time, carves neural pathways in our brains. As per the age-old neuroscience maxim that 'neurons that fire together wire together', by repeatedly performing these actions, they become ingrained habits. Actions that, once set in motion, become hard to reverse. These habits, if left unchecked, drain our executive power and pushing us deeper into low power mode – a vicious cycle that underscored the need for a comprehensive guide to break such habits and was a significant inspiration behind my upcoming book, 'The Phone Fix: The Brain-Focused Guide to Building Healthy Digital Habits and Breaking Bad Ones.'
Another notable feature of low power mode, and one which you may recognize, is that our ability to regulate our emotions effectively also dwindles. Normally insignificant circumstances or minor irritants can become sources of stress or frustration. For individuals who already grapple with a constant negative internal dialogue, this state of low power can exacerbate these feelings. The usual guardrails of reasoning that keep irrational thoughts at bay – ‘not being good enough’ being a common example – become less effective. Observing yourself closely, you may find that any self-criticism you have becomes louder and more pervasive after a particularly challenging day at work or during periods of sustained pressure or stress.
The Impact on Women
While both men and women experience cognitive strain, data from the Office of National Statistics reveals that women contribute an average of 10 more hours to unpaid work at home, which encompasses household chores and family duties.3 Additionally, other studies indicate that women shoulder a disproportionate share of undesirable, administrative tasks in the workplace, often referred to as 'office housework’.4 Yet, it's not merely the extra hours that are problematic; it's the mental bandwidth these additional tasks require. As we saw, despite spending the same amount of time undergoing cognitive testing, it was the participants who had to do the more complex tasks – keeping track of the last three letters rather than focusing only on the previous one – that became mentally fatigued. In the same way, women juggling multiple added responsibilities, both at home and work, are expected to keep multiple tasks ‘online’ in their working memory concurrently, much like needing to concentrate on multiple letters during the research study, and, as a result, may experience a similar increase in mental fatigue.
Placing a disproportionate amount of this type of workload on women means that they experience disproportionately brain draining effects. Women are much more likely to operate in low power mode and, as a result, be unable to perform to their full potential. This extends beyond workload to the perpetuated myths surrounding women’s brains. The unfounded belief that women are somehow naturally better at multitasking is one of them – studies actually show that multitasking has mentally draining effects which are equivalent in both sexes.5 We need to ensure these myths don't lay the groundwork for overburdening women, leading to a more pronounced executive drain.
While the challenges of managing mental load are universal, certain individuals will be impacted more acutely. Those with executive dysfunction—whether due to developmental conditions like ADHD or other neurological diseases acquired later in life—tend to slip into that low-power state more easily. There's been a noticeable uptick in ADHD diagnoses among women, attributable not just to heightened awareness of the condition but also the escalating pressures of modern life, intensifying the struggle that many are facing.
Encouraging women to seek higher-paid roles with greater responsibilities is important, yet this is less likely to be effective if they are in a mentally drained state. Amplified self-criticism in this state is enough of a deterrent that it can stop them from applying for those jobs. Overburdening them with responsibilities not only hinders their potential but also deprives us of tapping into a valuable segment of the workforce.
Having the ability to do anything doesn't mean one should be tasked with everything. We must acknowledge and confront the neurological toll that relentless societal expectations place on women. It's crucial to educate about the concept of mental load and begin distributing responsibilities equally, both at home and in the workplace. To truly cultivate an environment where women excel, it's imperative to ensure they're functioning at their peak, not perpetually in low power mode.
About the contributor:
Dr. Faye Begeti is a practising neurology doctor and neuroscientist at Oxford University Hospitals. Having completed her medical degree and PhD at the University of Cambridge, she's on a mission to demystify the wonders of the brain and share her clinical knowledge through her Instagram page (@the_brain_doctor). While recognising the advantages of technology, she also underscores the importance of moderated and mindful use. Catch her game-changing book, ‘The Phone Fix: The Brain-Focused Guide to Building Healthy Digital Habits and Breaking Bad Ones,’ dropping in February 2024.
1. Blain, B., Hollard, G. & Pessiglione, M. Neural mechanisms underlying the impact of daylong cognitive work on economic decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 6967–6972 (2016).
2. Wiehler, A., Branzoli, F., Adanyeguh, I., Mochel, F. & Pessiglione, M. A neuro-metabolic account of why daylong cognitive work alters the control of economic decisions. Curr Biol 32, 3564–3575.e3565 (2022).
3. The Office of National Statistics. Accessed at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/articles/womenshouldertheresponsibilityofunpaidwork/2016-11-10
4. Elsesser K., Women Do More Office Housework—Here’s How To Avoid It. Forbes (2023). https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2023/06/14/women-do-more-office-housework-heres-how-to-avoid-it/
5. Hirsch P, Koch I, Karbach J (2019) Putting a stereotype to the test: The case of gender differences in multitasking costs in task-switching and dual-task situations. Plos One 14(8): e0220150 (2019).