Ready for life
When discovering the world outside of the womb, newborns are not in unfamiliar territory. In fact, they have long become accustomed to and prepared for becoming not just part of the human race, but part of a particular social group, which they have been able to study at their leisure by using their mothers as a source of data and sound box, developing one sense after the other and finally all of them together.
How much do newborns retain of their numerous sensory experiences inside the womb? There has been plenty of research into this topic. One study has found that, newborn babies indicate a preference for the smell of their mother’s amniotic fluid. In addition, by regularly giving an expectant mother a particular flavour to consume during the final two weeks of pregnancy, one may observe a clear preference, or at least tendency, in her newborn baby towards this substance, for at least a few days, or even weeks (studies showed a preference for aniseed, vanilla, chocolate, carrot and even garlic). We can relate this effect to Proust’s famous episode of the madeleine, which found that the olfactory bulb and taste system are in fact closely linked to the cerebral systems responsible for emotions and memory.
In terms of hearing, a famous study found that some babies woke up far less than others at the sound of an aeroplane if their foetal development was in the vicinity of Osaka airport in Japan, whereas a melody played at the same volume was enough to cause them to react(1). Likewise, the theme tune of a television series watched regularly by mothers during pregnancy is recognised by newborns aged between two and four days(2). In addition, newborns appear to be primed not just to their mother’s voice and intonations, but also to the dominant language of their environment, or more precisely to the nuances and acoustic profile of this language, as well as certain nursery rhymes.
The human foetus already begins learning during the final 8 to 10 weeks of pregnancy. In fact, this process appears to be prescribed by evolution. During the 20 weeks preceding birth, the foetal brain begins functioning automatically. This spontaneous and endogenous neurone activity allows the axons, the fibres connecting the neurones together, to grow and reach their destination. Although intermittent at first, this cerebral activity gradually becomes more regular and calibrates itself as the sensory organs develop, to reach a level of synchronisation at around the 28th week of pregnancy.
While it is clearly genetically programmed, this of course does not mean that sensory development of a foetus is not susceptible to environmental influences. In reality, all of these influences – physical (the mother’s movements and positions, contact with her belly), chemical (nutrition, possible toxic substances), sounds, voices, smells, lights, etc. – constitute an unborn child’s initial contacts with the physical and socio-emotional world. These influences are in fact essential for preparing an individual’s brain, which has its own ‘critical period’ of acquisition and is ready to accept new information, react emotionally and discover other minds as well as its own: social development begins with foetal development.
"Social development begins with foetal development"
Foetus for life
A recent study led to a surprising new discovery concerning the social competence of a foetus, by observing the behaviour of twin foetuses in the womb. Do they already know that they are brothers or sisters? Analysis of their movements appears to suggest just that.
Italian researchers compared the dynamics of movements in the womb, which the foetuses directed either towards the abdominal wall, towards themselves or towards their twin(3). Having been able to distinguish these movements from one another, the researchers found that gestures performed towards the twin were longer and slower than other movements. Between the 14th and 18th week of pregnancy, the frequency of movements directed by the foetuses towards themselves and towards the abdominal wall decreased, while those directed towards the twin increased.
It is difficult to attribute these findings to coincidence, especially since they were observed in all five sets of twins studied. They also appear to show a certain degree of planning, to say nothing of the intention behind the gestures. The intra-womb partner is not considered to be an object or an obstacle, but as a fellow being that should be treated with care and respect and with whom one can interact.
This basic empathy is probably not limited to twins but constitutes a fundamental shared feature of humanity. Senses merge with emotions and movements to form a veritable machine, to be understood, learnt and exchanged.
Needless to say, it takes a lifetime to foster, perfect and make the most of the brain, but the basics are already in place and functional during the interval covering the final moments of foetal life to the first moments of life after birth. How the senses interact with one another in the foetus and when human beings start to become aware of their nature and their distinctness are just some of the many questions that remain to be answered.