If you are told that someone can remember something for 10 minutes, you might not be impressed. But when you hear that it is the memory of a 30-week-old fetus you may change your mind.
Active Life in the Womb
During the last decades, our knowledge about life in the womb has changed dramatically: the womb is not the quiet place that scientists once assumed.
Memory and learning seem to be a natural part of being human, and research suggests that we have to include the first nine months in the womb.
- Life in the womb is active and interactive.
- Fetus is surrounded with sounds and smells.
- Whooshing of the mother’s blood and digestive system,
- Thumping of the mother’s heart and voice,
- Smell of garlic that comes through the amniotic fluid.
Things that a Fetus may Learn and Remember
Evidence for prenatal learning and memory comes for a wide range of studies, some of them rather surprising. The baby’s nose develops between 11 and 15 weeks but in order to smell something you need air. Or do you?
- Scientists discovered that there is a complex and fascinating interaction of chemosensory receptors in the utero, and chemical compounds from the mother’s diet pass through the placenta and reach the baby.
- Some of the compounds flow in the capillaries of nasal mucosa (a type of tissue that lines the nasal cavity).
- The fetus becomes familiar with the mother’s diet by breathing and swallowing amniotic fluid.
- So even before the first sip of breast milk the baby already knows and prefers the mother’s milk.
Smell of Garlic
Infants also prefer other smells that they have come into contact with in the womb, and research suggests that they recognize, for example, the smell of garlic.
When presented to the breast for the first time, the newborn recognises the colostrums as familiar due to the presence of the same tastes that have been present in the amniotic fluid.
One of the most primitive form of memory, habituation, appears around the 22nd week. If the baby is exposed to a repetitive stimulus he reacts by moving. But after a while it seems like he remembers the stimuli and the response declines.
The stimuli can be sound or vibration, and an early auditory habituation corresponds to the beginning of fetal auditory abilities.
Recently Dutch researchers found evidence which suggest that thirty-week-old fetus possesses short-term memory.
- The fetal had a short-term memory of 10 minutes at 30 weeks, based on the lower number of stimuli needed to reach habituation in a second session conducted 10 minutes after the first.
- They also found that 34-week-old foetuses can store the information and retrieve it four weeks later.
What is Prenatal Memory?
- Even though memory might begin to function in the womb, it probably functions in some rudimentary form.
- Prenatal memory is most likely different from an adult’s memory, and it develops and changes as the individual matures. Many animals also show similar memory demonstrations.
Is it Working Properly?
A fetus begins to practice several functions, such as fetal breathing and eye movements, before they are needed, and prenatal memory might have a similar function.
The fetus might be making sure that the memory is working properly, and the development of prenatal memory could be determined by the development of the central nervous system.
But it is also possible that prenatal memory is important for the development of
- Recognition of the mother’s voice and smell
- Language development.
The prosodic nature of language can be heard in the womb, and the fetus is able to differentiate between different speeches sounds in the womb.
The Dutch research was conducted by: Dirix, CEH, and Nijhuis, JG, Jongsma, HW, and Hornstra, G. Aspects of Fetal Learning and Memory. Child Development, Vol. 80, Issue 4