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Learning in the Womb
Evolution has endowed human babies with anincredible ability to learn
Human babies come helpless and dependent into theworld, more so than the young of any other species. Ababy elk can stand a few hours after birth, and run within aday. On the other hand, human babies, with their eager,adaptable brains, are able to learn far more in their first twoyears of life than an animal ever will. They can even masterthe basics of the miraculously complex, uniquely human skill
Why Is the Human Brain Less Mature at Birth
Than the Brains of Other Primates?
A leading theory is based on the fact that humanswalked upright while their ancestors used theirarms as forelegs, walking on their knuckles as the apesdo. Perhaps the first humans stood upright so they couldsee above the grasses in the savannas in order to spotpredators and game. (This may account for the weakersense of smell in humans.) Upright posture may alsohave allowed their bodies to keep cool by venting heatthrough the head into the moving air above the grasses.
In the course of evolution the upright position musthave shifted weight to the pelvis, which thickened to bearit, closing down the birth opening. As the pelvis was thickening,the head of the fetus continued to grow larger toaccommodate the constantly enlarging brain. Whateverthe reasons, the human fetus had to be born well beforethe brain and head had reached maturity so it would stillbe small enough to pass through the birth canal.
Are babies ableto learn while still in the womb?
The powerful need that a baby has to learn is matched by anunusual ability which unfolds gradually in the infant brain.Its helplessness acts as a powerful motivator to figure outhow to survive in its new environment when it can no longerdepend on the peaceful, protected life in the womb wherelearning had already started. Investigators into the developmentof infant learning and memory have discovered thatfetuses are not only listening to what's going on outside thewomb, but are already capable of some basic kinds of learningand remembering. In other words, even before we'reborn, we're forming memories.
Memories formed in the womb
Any mother knows that her baby prefers her voice to that ofany other person. That isn't just motherly conceit. Evenbefore three days of age, newborns are capable of tellingtheir mother's voice apart from other women's voices. Notonly that, they're so fond of their own mother's voice they'lldo whatever's in their power to hear it. Psychologists knowthis because of experiments in which a newborn infant ispermitted to "produce" a voice turn on a recording of awoman reading a story by sucking on a specially-riggedpacifier. If it's their own mother's voice they turn on bysucking, they'll do so more vigorously and frequently than ifit's the voice of some other woman. (New or prospectivefathers might find it interesting to know that a fetus doesnot learn this kind of preference for its father's voice or, forthat matter, for any voice coming from outside the bodyholding the womb. So don't feel hurt if your baby pays lessattention to you.)
It takes a newborn a little longer to recognize its motherby her face. Since there's no way a baby can come into theworld already armed with the knowledge of what its motherlooks like, it has to learn this after birth by matching themother's voice to the face it's coming from. At one month,infants can match their mother's voice to her face. Theyprove it by looking at the mother's face, and ignoring theface of another woman sitting by her side, when a tape-recordingof the mother's voice is played. After about threemonths, an infant can pick out its mother by sight alone.
One might think the newborn could have learned a preferencefor its mother's voice while bonding with the motherjust after birth. But it goes deeper than that. In an experimentin which pregnant mothers read a certain story outloud once a week for the last six weeks of pregnancy, theirnewborns turned out to prefer that story to others. Anotherstudy showed that when pregnant women sing a certainmelody once a day during the last two weeks of pregnancy,the babies prefer that melody to an unfamiliar one afterthey're born. So babies can not only hear their mother'svoice while in the womb and recognize it after birth, they'reeven capable of attending to and remembering some of thefiner details of what they hear, down to specific melodiesand perhaps even the sounds of particular words.
How we know what a fetus learns
Other studies have even gone inside the womb to explorethe capacity of third-trimester fetuses to learn. How can suchan experiment be done? If you make a noise by placing a"vibroacoustic stimulator" against a pregnant mother'sabdomen, the fetus will move. If this is done repeatedly thefetus will eventually stop moving in response to the noise.That shows that the fetus has habituated it has learned torecognize the sound and tune it out. A fetus will show theeffects of this simple kind of learning responding less persistentlyto the same stimulus reapplied in the future notjust after ten minutes, but even after 24 hours.
But don't rush out to buy a Latin Primer to tutor yourunborn baby in the classics. Habituation is a kind of learningso basic that we share it with fruit flies and sea slugs. There isno evidence that newborns understand the meaning of whatthey have heard.
If, however, survival of a helpless newborn depends onbonding with the mother immediately after birth, presumablyan infant's brain must be sufficiently developed to recognizematters essential for its post-natal well-being. Therefore,the bonding process must begin prior to birth. As we've seen,to conserve energy the fetus is able to learn not to react whena new event has proven that it is not a danger. To identify itsfood-source later on, the fetus acquires the life-preservingability to recognize and crave the sound of its mother's voice.Research indicates that while still in the womb, the fetusacquires a preference for foods the mother eats, say carrots,and carries that preference with it into the world. Whetheran infant inherits its mother's third-trimester cravingsremains speculative.
Excerpted from Learn Faster & Remember More by David Gamon, Ph.D. and Allen D. Bragdon. Copyright © 2001 by Allen D. Bragdon Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.