Mothers Love

Prenatal Memory and Learning
By David B. Chamberlain

Memory is the quintessence of human experience without which we cannot make progress, cannot learn from experience, and cannot develop a personal identity. Learning and memory are interlocked: learning depends on memory, and learning is evidence of memory.

Psychology traditionally placed the beginnings of memory at about age three when the left brain begins to develop since few people have conscious recall of events before that time. However, an accumulating volume of research demonstrates memory in the first years of life and in the prenatal period as well when the right brain is dominant. Some children spontaneously recall birth events (even secrets) but expression of these memories is delayed until they can speak. Before they use words they can express their memories non-verbally by drawing pictures, acting out scenes using pantomime, pointing to body locations, and by providing authentic sound effects for equipment (like suction devices) used at the birth. These children warn us that early memory and learning are real.

The documentation of learning and memory months before birth is surprising. Some of this has been made possible by direct ultrasound observations of fetal behavior. Twins can be seen developing certain gestures and habits at twenty weeks gestational age which persist into their postnatal years. In one case, a brother and sister were seen playing cheek-to-cheek on either side of the dividing membrane. At one year of age, their favorite game was to take positions on opposite sides of a curtain, and begin to laugh and giggle as they touched each other and played through the curtain. Parents interested in prenatal communication have taught their prenates the “Kick Game.” When babies kick, the parents touch the abdomen and say, “Kick, baby, kick!” When the baby kicks, they move to a different location and repeat the invitation. Babies soon oblige by kicking anywhere on cue.

In a famous experiment by Anthony DeCasper and colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, mothers read the Dr. Seuss story, The Cat In the Hat, at regular intervals before birth. At birth, babies were hooked up to recordings which they could select by sucking on a non-nutritive nipple. After a few trials, babies cleverly sucked at whatever speed was necessary to obtain their mother’s voice reading “The Cat in the Hat. Similarly, in utero, musical passages repeated regularly–such as theme music for the British soap opera Neighbors or the bassoon passage from Peter and the Wolf–are identified and preferred immediately after birth. In a recent experiment, French mothers repeated a children’s rhyme each day from week 33 to week 37 of gestation. At the end of this time (still inside the womb) the babies showed memory and learning for this particular rhyme as opposed to similar rhymes they had not heard.

Babies are learning their native language before birth. This is made possible by the development of hearing as early as 16 weeks gestational age. A mother’s voice reaches the uterus with very little distortion as the sound waves pass directly through her body. Acoustic spectroscopy, which makes possible elaborately detailed portraits of sound similar to fingerprints, has documented prenatal learning of the mother tongue. By 27 weeks of gestation, the cry of a baby already contains some of the speech features, rhythms, and voice characteristics of its mother. Newborn reactions to language are based on the sounds heard in utero: French babies prefer to look at persons speaking French while Russian babies prefer to watch people speaking Russian.

Unexpected evidence for prenatal learning and memory comes from studies of taste and olfaction (See The Fetal Senses). Until recently, olfaction was thought to require air, hence, learning of odors was not considered possible before birth. Current understanding, however, recognizes the complex interaction of chemo sensory receptors in utero. Many chemical compounds, including those from the mother’s diet, pass through the placenta and reach the baby in utero while others flow in the capillaries of the nasal mucosa. By breathing and swallowing amniotic fluid, a baby becomes familiar with the mother’s diet, including things like garlic. Even before post-nasal exposure to breast milk, babies already know and prefer their own mother’s milk. Abrupt changes in her diet during the perinatal period can confuse babies and upset breastfeeding.

Traumatic events in neonatal intensive care are indelibly imprinted in memory and intrude on adult life, often in the form of fear. Edward, who was born prematurely and entered the NICU at 29 weeks, learned to fear the sound and sight of adhesive tape. He learned this from the experience of having sections of his skin accidentally pulled off during removal of monitor pads. When he was a young man, he still feared adhesive tape.

Babies can learn their mother’s emotional state. Experiments in Australia revealed that unborn babies were participating in the emotional upset of their mothers watching a disturbing 20-minute segment of a Hollywood movie. When briefly re-exposed to this film up to three months after birth, they still showed recognition of the earlier experience. Studies of a thousand babies whose mothers had experienced various degrees of depression during pregnancy themselves displayed depression at birth and in proportion to the depression scores of their mothers.

An important message of these diverse findings is that memory and learning seem to be a natural part of being human, including the first nine months in the womb and the years of infancy, defined as the time before speech. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that life in the womb is extremely active and interactive and the womb is, in fact, a classroom.

2 Responses

  1. Jen,

    Fascinating story illustrating the extent in which we are inborn with the ability to understand language…all languages must be consistent with the structure of the brain or it will not be learned.

    “I wish I was as intelligent as the day I was born.”~Henry Thoreau


  2. I know for a fact that babies understand many, many words and sentences long before they are capable of linking them together and pronouncing them in speech. Becuase of this they are indeed thinking in full sentences (words)prior to ever uttering a word. I know this as a fact.
    When I was under 2 I remember very specific facts about a very tramatic experience.
    Every Sunday my father took my brothers and I to visit my grandparents to give my mother a break. My Grandparents lived in Lunar park Coney Island. I remember the ritual. My dad and oldest brother would push all the bottons of all the elevators and then stand in the middle of them and wait for the first to open.
    On this particular day 2 opened at the same time. while my father and brothers went to walk in one, I ran into the other. I remember getting in and hearing my father scream my name. I turned around and realized I ran into the wrong one. My father was not able to get to my elevator b4 the doors closed. I remember feeling my shoe was loose. I remember crying hysterical that I was separated from my father and brothers. I looked at the floor # board and knew that my Grandparents lived on the 12th floor as my father always held me in his arms and let me press the botton. I not only knew what the 12 button looked like I knew it was called 12 even though I could not say the word TWELVE through speech I was able to say it in my mind.
    The elevator stopped and a teenager got on and imediatly asked me where my mother was. I understood him perfectly. I was saying a million things in my mind but I could not say them to him with speech. All i could do was cry and point. I wanted to press 12. I knew it would take me to the 12th floor and I knew how to get to my grandparents door from the elevator. I put my arms out to show the boy I wanted him to pick me up. once he did that I leaned as much as I could to show him I wanted to press the # pad for the floors. He held me tighter and told me that I can’t touch the #’s because he needs to go to the lobby. He then told me he was sure my mom was looking for me so I shouldn’t worry. In my mind I was saying , with words, the whole story. I cried out of fear and frustration that I could not get this boy to understand me.
    Being that he was a teenager and it was 1966 he left me in the lobby and specifically told me to stay in that one spot because my family is probably looking for me. He also told me he was just going to the store and he would be back in a lttle while and that if i was still there waiting he would take me up to his mom and they would call the police.
    I stood there crying as he left because i felt that he was my link to safety and a person taking care of me. I knew that i would not budge from the spot he told me to stay. I was not waiting long when I heard my oldest brothers voice. I will never forget his words; “Daddy’s gonna kill you”.
    apparently, in those days the elevators went to the roof and opened up. My father told my oldest brother to bring my other brothers to my grandparents and relay the story and get as many neighbors to search for me. My father raced to the roof to try to get there b4 I did. He also saw that my shoe lace was untied and was terrified that it would get caught in the door. When all passed and we were in my grandparents apartment. I remember my dad asking for a beer and telling my grandfather that he had to hit me on the butt with the belt so that I never ever run away from him like that again. I remember hearing the entire conversation and understanding every word. I remember my grand father pleading with my father not to hit me because i was just a baby. I remember my father taking off his belt and my grandmother actually crying saying she wouldn’t watch. I screamed for my grandmother to protect me but she left the apartment because she couldnt bear to watch a baby be hit. My grandfather stayed and I remember him telling my father..only 3 hits. I remember thinking that the trama itself was enough to keep me from ever running ahead of my father again. I remember seeing the hitting as just more pain.
    i remember the ride home. I remember my father telling the story to my mother. I remember my mother did what my father should have done. She hugged me and kissed me and said thank God you are alright. I remember all this in vivid detail. One might argue that I heard the story so many times growing up (which I did) but NO ONE knew what happened in the elevator. No one knew the story of the boy. Matter of fact, I remember my dad telling my mother it was a miracle that I somehow got back down to the lobby and got off and waited. Because I was unable to speak articulately, I was never able to tell them the whole story. I did ofcourse when I was older.
    this is how I know for a fact that words come way b4 speech. We, as infants do think in words as well as pictures. How do you think they undersatand all those commands. You can ask a 8 month old baby, “show mommy the ball” that baby will crawl and pick up the ball. , I have 3 kids myself and know for sure they understood complex sentences and responded accurately to them way b4 they spoke. If you understand words then you can think with words. This I know for sure.

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