Learning begins in the womb

In 2011, science writer Annie Murphy Paul delivered a talk at TEDGlobal 2011 exploring the fascinating subject of in utero learning.  The topic is an offshoot of a growing field of study called fetal origins.  Fetal origins, according to Murphy Paul, is relatively new field of science which explores the relationship between the nine months a child spends in utero and his or her health and wellbeing throughout the rest of Life.  Murphy Paul fleshed out the evidence that humans begin learning – about language, food, and culture – before they are even born.  The mother’s womb, in fact, is an arena of active learning for a developing child, whose senses of hearing, taste, and touch have been exercised for months prior to a full-term birth.

 Murphy Paul pointed to study anecdotes that suggest babies were engaged with the external world long before birth.  They cry, for example, in the accent of their mothers.  Researchers found that, from birth, French babies’ cries end on a high note, like the words of their native language, while German babies’ cries conversely end on a low note.  Scientists believe that these culture-specific cries may aid babies in survival by making their cries appeal to their own mothers – the people most invested in protecting them.

Babies begin learning about the cultures into which they are born while in utero, adapting to the tastes of the foods their mothers consume by sampling the flavors in their amniotic fluid.  Researchers found that, when introduced to solid foods, babies remembered and preferred the foods their mothers had eaten during pregnancy.  In addition to introducing babies to their cultures, the foods mothers consume during pregnancy also teach babies an early lesson about what is safe and good to eat.

Murphy Paul says that in utero learning is more visceral than some popular tendencies would lead us to believe.  Learning in the womb goes beyond playing Mozart and reading Shakespeare to a preborn child, for example.  The lessons a child learns in the womb are geared more toward his ability to survive and connect with his people than to enriching his intellect or improving his IQ.

What a woman experiences during pregnancy, how she behaves, and what type of bond she has with her child can all serve as indicators of the health and wellbeing outcomes a child may exhibit in his or her life.  But Murphy Paul firmly insists that the objective of this field of study is not to add pressure to mothers.  “Let me be clear,” she says, “fetal origins research is not about blaming women for what happens during pregnancy.  It’s about discovering how best to promote the health and wellbeing of the next generation.  That important effort must include a focus on what fetuses learn during the nine months they spend in the womb.  Learning is one of Life’s most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined.”