One of life’s essential ingredients for survival, learning, is apparently triggered far earlier than we’ve ever imagined. In a 16-minute TED talk, science author Annie Murphy Paul describes the amazing process through which fetuses acquire the essential bits of information required to step into the real world readily prepared for the worst.
According to Annie, who is a mother herself, fetuses can hear people’s muffled voices from a very early stage in their development in utero. The mother’s voice, however, is crystal clear because it reverberates throughout the body. Children thus learn their mother’s voice best and prefer to listen to it over other people’s voices.
They even learn about the particular language that’s spoken in the world that they’ll be born into. How’s that possible? A study showed that babies cry in their mother’s accent from the moment of birth. Researchers observed that French babies’ cries ended on a rising note, while German babies ended on a falling note. The ability to imitate the contours of the mother’s language may have evolved to aid with the babies’ survival, according to Annie. It may even serve as a first milestone towards learning their native language.
Taste, smell, even fear gets through
In addition to sounds, babies also recognize tastes and even smells around the third trimester when their taste buds and olfactory system start to develop. The flavors of the foods a pregnant woman eats make their way into the amniotic fluid which is continually swallowed by the fetus, according to the science author. Not surprisingly, babies will prefer those tastes over others as they enter life.
This way fetuses learn about the things that are good or bad to eat. They also learn about the culture they’re about to step into as they’re born, including particular spices.
New research has also discovered that people who’s mothers starved during pregnancy were more prone to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. They also have higher blood pressure, poorer cholesterol levels, and reduced glucose tolerance. “The fetus adjusts its metabolism […] in anticipation of the environment that awaits it,” Annie says.
Mothers with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) exposed to the World Trade Center attack from 2001 gave birth to children who showed signs of post traumatic stress. This and much more in the brilliant talk embedded just below. Annie cautions that the purpose of making all these aspects known is not to blame women for what happens during pregnancy, but to help create awareness and give the next generation a better chance for good development.
The video is admittedly not new, but it’s never a bad time to watch a riveting TED talk. To watch it in higher quality, head over to TED.com.