The Mysteries of Prenatal Learning
Oct 28 2013
Researchers reveal that foeti are capable of feeling the environment and listening to sounds, both of which help in shaping a child
Babies begin to understand the language of learning and hear the sound of music in the womb. They can recognise what they hear before birth, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Foeti learn to recognise the native language of their environment, including especially, the language the mother is using.
Cognitive scientist Jeff Elman clarifies, “This doesn’t mean they understand the language. But if their mother speaks English, for example, they will learn to recognise this as different from other languages.” It looks ‘foetal learning’ can help in shaping a child — like
shaping the child’s music orientation and ability.
Researchers Eino Partanena, Teija Kujalaa, Risto Näätänena, Auli Liitolaa, Anke Sambethf and Minna Huotilainen at the University of Helsinki, Finland, examined expectant mothers from week 29 until birth. They obtained neural traces of memories from the womb. “Once we learn a sound, if it is repeated to us often enough, we form a memory of it, which is activated when we hear the sound again.”
The lead researcher Eino Partanena says, “We have known that foeti can learn certain sounds from their environment during pregnancy.” They can also detect subtle changes and process complex information.
Let us take a look at the chronology of events in foetal development. In the total gestation period of 40 weeks, the first two weeks go for the egg to fertilise and the remaining 38 weeks are taken by the fertilised egg to develop into a complete baby. Meghan Holohan writes, “All of the foetus’s senses will be stimulated naturally during the course of pregnancy, except for vision.”
The foetus begins to develop the ability to detect stimuli, such as touch, from as early as 8 weeks. They begin to urinate during the 10th week of pregnancy. The urine thus passed gets mixed in the amniotic fluid surrounding the foetus in the womb. After about 15 weeks, the foetus begins to drink the amniotic fluid, which they like. An expectant mother can feel the baby movement after 16-20 weeks gestation. Foeti begin to suck their thumb from 20 weeks. Fetal movements are important for the future development of the child; the movement
steadily increases as the pregnancy progresses.
Fetal movements help in the development of brain and nervous system. It also allows the joints, bones and muscles to form correctly. Foeti do not breathe — mothers breathe on their behalf (oxygen is passed to the foetus through the umbilical cord) — though they do breathing like movements after 9 weeks of pregnancy. Once a child is born, breathing is not a big deal.
The eye movement begins during the 14th week of pregnancy, and similar complex movements after 24th week. It is said that foeti also dream as in the last third of pregnancy, rapid eye movements have been seen in the foetus.
Foeti also feel pain. How does one know foeti feel pain? Researchers try to find out the status of the brain and from it they interpret if foeti can sense the pain. But to study conscious experience is much more complex. The connections required between brain and body to feel pain are believed to form only after 17 weeks, and they become adequately functional by about 26 weeks.
Finnish researchers say that foeti can start hearing from the 16th week of pregnancy. In the beginning they hear only low noises and slowly they begin to hear higher pitched noises. Also, foeti like soothing music; louder sounds startle them and make them move about. Unexpected noises can also be shocking to the foeti. And what’s more, they express their dislike for music by kicking, which is also an indication to stop it.
In their paper entitled ‘Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth’ the Finnish researchers show direct neural evidence that neural memory traces are formed by auditory learning prior to birth. Their findings indicate: “Prenatal experiences have a remarkable influence on the brain’s auditory discrimination accuracy, which may support, for example, language acquisition during infancy.” Their studies imply that it might be possible to support early auditory development and potentially compensate for difficulties of genetic nature, such as language impairment or dyslexia.
Exposure to voices is helpful for the baby’s brain development. Acoustic stimulation works but one needs to be careful while using foetal acoustic stimulation devices designed to pipe sounds and music through the uterus, says developmental psychobiologist William Fifer of the Columbia University. Natural sounds are quite effective for brain development. As are familiar music and mother’s voice which help the baby relax. zz
(The writer is a biotechnologist
and ED, Birla Institute of
Scientific Research, Jaipur)