HELSINKI, Finland, August 27, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Researchers at the University of Helsinki have found that newborn babies learn and remember words that they heard repeatedly in the third trimester of their mothers’ pregnancies.
Eino Partanen and colleagues at the Cognitive Brain Research Unit of the university's Institute of Behavioral Sciences set out to discover if there was measurable evidence that memory traces are formed prior to birth.
Previous studies looked at behavioral clues to the conjecture that babies remember things they heard before birth, but Partanen and his team decided instead to test babies using EEG sensors to look for neural traces of memories that were formed in the womb.
“Although previous behavioral observations show that newborns react differentially to unfamiliar sounds vs. familiar sound material that they were exposed to as fetuses, the neural basis of fetal learning has not thus far been investigated,” the report on the study explained.
The researchers used a group of 33 mothers in their third trimester. Half were a control group; the other half were given a recording to play to their unborn children that included the meaningless, in Finnish, word “tatata,” interspersed with music. Periodically, the word would be slightly altered with a change in pronunciation, syllable stress or tone.
By the time they were born, the test babies had heard the word “tatata” an average of 25,000 times.
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When the babies who heard the recording in utero were tested after birth, the EEG scans showed a specific pattern of enhanced brain activity when they heard the word again, indicating that they recognized the word and its variations. The infants in the control group showed no change in brain activity when they heard the word.
Moreover, the researchers were able to measure “a mismatch response” when the babies heard the altered version of “tatata,” indicating they were even able to differentiate the sound of the word when it was pronounced differently.
The researchers said this memory ability speeds up recognition of sounds in the baby's native language and can be detected as a pattern of brain waves, even in a sleeping child.
“Here we show direct neural evidence that neural memory traces are formed by auditory learning prior to birth. Our findings indicate that prenatal experiences have a remarkable influence on the brain’s auditory discrimination accuracy, which may support, for example, language acquisition during infancy,” the researchers stated.
While the study concluded that it was unclear whether these newborn memories persist beyond a few days, having tested only babies less than a month old, an intriguing example long-term memory retention is that of world famous Canadian conductor Boris Brott, who as a baby in the womb was exposed to music his mother practiced in preparation for performances.
Dr. Thomas Verny, in his book, “The Secret Life of the Unborn Child,” relates that when Brott was asked when he developed an interest in music, he replied, “before birth.”
Mr. Brott recounted that while learning new music pieces, he was surprised to find he already knew certain pieces by heart, particularly the viola parts. His mother, a viola player, was also surprised initially, until she realized they were pieces that she had practiced while pregnant with him.
Dr. Verny’s research into the life of the unborn child has found that the child in the womb “can see, hear, experience, taste, and, on a primitive level, even learn in utero. Most profoundly, he can feel – not with an adult’s sophistication, but feel nonetheless.”
An abstract of the University of Helsinki study titled, “Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth” is available here.