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Some of the Most Important Learning We Ever Do Happens in the Womb: Science Expert

What is an unborn child capable of learning?

According to scientific journalist Annie Murphy Paul, “some of the most important learning we ever do happens before we’re born, while we’re still in the womb.”

In a recent discussion hosted by TED, Paul said the idea that much of a child’s personality is shaped in utero “is supported by the latest evidence from psychology and biology.”

Paul explores the topic in her new book, Origins, written during her own pregnancy. During her research the former editor of Psychology Today and recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism discovered a field of scientific research that has only come of age in the last ten years – fetal origins.

Fetal origins, she says, is based on the theory that “our health and well-being throughout our lives is crucially affected by the nine months we spend in the womb.”

“We’re all learning about the world even before we enter it,” she said. “When we hold our babies for the first time we might imagine that they’re clean slates unmarked by life, when in fact they have already been shaped by us and by the particular world we live in.”

Paul cites a wide range of studies showing that a baby begins to recognize his mother’s voice in the womb. Around the fourth month, babies hear others only as muted voices similar to that of Charlie Brown’s teacher, but learn to distinguish and prefer the mother’s voice.

Babies learn the language spoken around them and mimic its cadences the instant they begin to cry. Paul says babies do this “to further endear” themselves to the mother, increasing their chances for survival.

At seven months, the unborn babies’ taste buds are fully developed, as is their sense of smell, and their mother’s food preference influences the baby’s taste long after birth.

The journalist emphasizes that the child absorbs nearly every aspect of his mother’s life. “The fetus incorporates these offerings into its own body, makes it part of its flesh and blood,” she said. The full range of the mother’s life experiences are passed onto the child and “make up a mix of influences as individual and idiosyncratic as the woman herself.”

Shattering one stereotype, she adds that “moderate stress during pregnancy is associated with accelerated infant brain development.”

“My immersion in fetal origins research made me less anxious about being pregnant, not more,” she wrote.

Paul’s findings have been reported in such mainstream outlets as the New York Times and Time magazine.
[19 Dec 2011, Ben Johnson,]