Despite happening to so many of us – around 1.8 billion every month – menstruation is blighted by myriad myths and misconceptions, from the long-standing, and incorrect, belief that periods can “sync up” to the equally improbable idea that menstruating people attract bears. It’s also been suggested that a person’s cognitive skills could be impacted during that time of the month, and, once again, this has been proven untrue.
In a recent study, researchers demonstrated that verbal and spatial skills, such as word retrieval and navigation, stay relatively constant throughout the menstrual cycle, suggesting they are not affected by hormonal fluctuations as previously thought.
“Verbal and spatial functions have [...] been repeatedly studied along the menstrual cycle,” the team write in their paper, “with research questions following the general rationale that a ‘feminization’ of cognitive functions would occur during phases with higher levels of ovarian hormones.” It has therefore been hypothesized that verbal performance improves and spatial performance is impaired during the peri-ovulatory or luteal phases.
To investigate further, the researchers analyzed verbal and spatial skills across the menstrual cycle in a series of studies. All participants were female, aged 18 to 35 years, did not use hormonal birth control, had no underlying health conditions, and a cycle between 21 and 35 days in length.
In one study, participants completed an at-home verbal memory and mental rotation task for up to 80 days (two to three menstrual cycles). In another, they completed sessions in a computer laboratory either during their period, two to three days before ovulation, or a week before their next period. This time, the tests included a verbal fluency task, a mental rotation task, and a navigation task. Saliva samples were collected at each time point to assess hormone levels.
What they found goes against recent studies that have reported brain changes in response to hormonal fluctuations along the menstrual cycle. Instead, they demonstrate, there is “substantial consistency” in verbal and spatial performance, suggesting the menstrual cycle has no effect on these skills.
“We conclude that verbal and spatial performance remain relatively stable along the menstrual cycle in human females,” the researchers write. “Associations of verbal and spatial performance to ovarian hormones are likely weak and not moderated by individual hormone sensitivity.”
However, they add, inter-individual variability is worth exploring further: menstruation could affect cognition differently for different people. For example, those who have irregular cycles or are particularly sensitive to hormonal changes. “These findings don’t mean that these hormones don’t matter for [cognition],” The University of Toronto’s Liisa Galea told New Scientist. “This just tells us that across a quote unquote normal menstrual cycle, we don’t see these kinds of effects.”
Want to bust some more period myths? Look out for our exclusive interview with gynecologist Dr Jen Gunter in the upcoming issue of CURIOUS, our free e-magazine, out February 25. Subscribe to our newsletter and get it delivered directly to your inbox.
The study is published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.