Claira: A Case Study in Prenatal Learning
AbstractHistorically, most studies of prenatal learning have centered upon contingency reinforcements, habituation responses, and developmental outcomes. Very little research has examined the learning process during the prenatal period. This case study examines the behavioral responses of one prenate to an experimental curriculum. Significant movement responses are noted. The responses appear as an organized pattern which would imply that the prenate is capable of progressing from generality and abstraction to specificity and discernment in the learning process. This learning process may well be unified, organized, and amodal in nature. Movement patterns imply that higher order variables help to govern learning and are critical in the emergence of mental schema and regulations. Results from this study suggest that at the prenatal level, there is the beginning of cognitive schemes and regulations in mental operations. Responses during the prenatal period are compared to later developmental trends in infancy.
IntroductionBy design, the field of pre- and perinatal psychology must eventually attempt to clarify and to define what is "innate" in the human condition. The frontier for this field is the exploration of hu mankind's original nature. Within this context, the areas of prenatal learning and bonding are challenged to examine the sources of learning, social interactions, and the etiology of development itself. Prenatal bonding and learning stand at the forefront of human social and mental origins at the most elementary levels. In an article describing the roots of social and cognitive development, Andrew Meltzoff (1985) has pointed out that developmental psychology has often hindered its own investigations by insisting on basic assumptions and misconceptions regarding infant development. As an example, Meltzoff points out that the prevailing scientific axiom regarding infant development is that the newborn is reflexive and asocial. Such views have been fostered and maintained in the traditions of Piaget, Bowlby's attachment theory, and psychoanalytic theory. In Piagetian psychology mental structures evolve from reflexive interactions. The infant is at best "egocentric" in social contexts. Hence mental and social development takes a much later course of development. The view of the infant as egocentric has also been fostered by Bowlby's attachment theory (1969) which sees attachment as evolving from reflexive interactions in a hierarchical progression. In the psychoanalytic tradition there is also the prevailing view that the infant is "asocial" or "autistic" in regards to social responsiveness (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman, 1975). Each of these views sees the physiological processes as dominant over psychological processes. Looking at the area of prenatal learning, the same assumptions appear to be operating as well. Learning processes have most commonly been described in terms of habituation (Kisilevsky and Muir, 1991; Querleu et al., 1981; Sakabe et al., 1969), conditioning (Spelt, 1948; Van de Carr, 1988), and imprinting sequences (Salk, 1962; Logan, 1991). Serious efforts to explore prenatal learning began in the 1920's and 1930's. Pieper (1925) performed sonic startles to study fetal responses. The same line of research was continued by Forbes and Forbes (1927). Ray (1932) seemed amazed that prenates would react to the smacking together of two boards. Sontag and Wallace (1934) attempted to experiment with greater numbers and to secure tighter controls over variables. Holt (1933) put forth the premise that intrauterine conditioning accounts for certain behavioral characteristics in the newborn. Spelt (1948) studied refractory time in the habituation-dishabituation process described by Forbes, Peiper, and Ray. In these historical studies the main premise for prenatal learning involved physiological processes. They did not define the psychological processes at work for the prenate. There is also a growing body of research which attempts to understand the prenate as an intelligent and sentient being. This has been one of the main pursuits of David Chamberlain (1988; 1992; 1993, 1994). Henry Truby demonstrated that by 28 weeks gestational age, mothers and premature infant voices could be matched on voice spectrographs. The work of Anthony DeCasper (DeCasper and Fifer, 1980; DeCasper and Spence, 1982; DeCasper and Prescott, 1984) reveals a complexity of bonding and language processing during the prenatal period. In his work, Chamberlain (1992, p. 222) has pointed to the surprising musical intelligence demonstrated by prenates. Premature infants hearing Brahms' Lullaby in the hospital nursery, had accelerated growth and were discharged sooner than non-stimulated babies (Chapman; 1975). Peter Hepper (1988) has demonstrated that the prenates of mothers who listened to "soap opera" theme music during pregnancy showed a preference for the same music during the postnatal period. It has also been reported that unborn children respond favorably to portions of Vivaldi and Mozart, but with hyperactivity to rock music and other heavy classical compositions (Clements, 1977, Verny, 1991). Gellrich (1993) has even postulated that musical abilities developed prenatally can be enhanced and accelerated throughout early childhood. One could expound on a litany of works which demonstrate memory and meaningful interactions during the prenatal period. Yet we still do not have a clear understanding of the psychological processes underlying these behaviors. It is the premise of this paper that the latter findings described above provide us with glimpses of the complexity and refinement of learning during the prenatal period. Rather than reflexive habit procedures, there may be a unified and "intelligent" organization of experiences. Physiological states are important in understanding learning, but we must be careful not to equate neurological functions with learning. Using one to describe the other may be like mixing apples and oranges (Bower, 1989). If we see learning only as a response to externally imposed methods which measure learning as increases in rate of responses dependent upon contingent reinforcements, then we miss the richness of the processes which underscore such changes. Conditioning, operant learning, and habituation are important measurements of response and I make use of them in this study. However, in studies with young infants one also can find research which supports the notion that intrinsic motivation is a primary reinforcer (Papousek, 1979; Watson, 1967; Bower, 1989; Meltzoff, 1990). In this view, learning involves the rudimentary formulation and testing of hypotheses by the young infant. In this case study, I present the idea that the prenate, especially during the last trimester, is in a learning state which moves from abstraction and generalization to increased specificity and differentiation (Bower, 1989). These processes are unified, amodal in perception, and governed by higher order variables which guide the infant toward hypothetical formulations about the uterine environment and the external world (Sallenbach, 1993). This paper is a case study of one prenate's learning strategies. It is intended to provide an in-depth analysis of those processes as reflected in one child. The report is not quantitative in nature, nor is it necessarily intended to be generalized to all prenates. There are methodological flaws which seemed unavoidable at the time. Despite all, it is hoped that this paper will help to clarify further the uncharted waters of learning at its earliest levels.
MethodologyThe subject for this study was a young female prenate named "Claira." The information is taken from careful and detailed accounts of learning episodes done with her. These data were obtained from the 34th through the 36th weeks of gestation. Six learning episodes were recorded utilizing eleven different learning activities. Some of the activities were repeated within a single episode. Information was also taken from several emotional bonding activities and all of the activities were part of a specific educational curriculum. The compilation of the data had four main objectives: 1) to record the prenate's behavioral responses to specific learning activities; 2) to identify responses to both maternal and familial social cues; 3) to correlate observed behaviors with later early infant developmental skills, and; 4) to evaluate any psychological processes evident in the prenate's responses. Each learning episode was videotaped. Responses were evaluated both immediately following a session and reviewed several times afterwards. Claira's body position was identified ahead of time so that movement responses could be carefully traced by using dolls. From these reviews and observations four main movement categories were determined. An obvious flaw in this approach is the potential for "observer bias." The mother was cognizant of the games and their objectives. There was also the risk of bias on the part of the father who was the author. The advantages of this arrangement, on the other hand, were that we were more familiar with the movement responses, were in a better position to provide feedback, and familiar enough to observe on a more intimate level. An alternative method would have involved high tech intervention such as with sonograms but this would have been costly and did not seem consistent with the goals of the program. Since response detection was literally a "hands-on" approach, a third party reviewing the tapes would not have been able to detect intrauterine movements. Another alternative would have been to have a third party also providing hands-on detection. An attempt was made for a third party observation through the University of Washington, but Claira decided "to sleep through" all of our attempts to arouse her. These are typical problems encountered in this type of research. One of the ways we attempted to control for bias was to establish a baseline for behaviors prior to the learning sessions. Claira's wakefulness was usually indicated by generalized or specific movements. It was important not to confuse these movements with any intentional responses to the learning activities. Baseline was defined as a ten minute period when there was no activity evident. The baseline thus indicated a quiet-alert state and formed the stage for beginning the learning activities. Claira was responding to an experimental prenatal curriculum called Bonded Beginnings (Sallenbach, 1991). The program includes specific activities designed to promote bonding and learning during the prenatal and neonatal periods and particularly between the prenate and the family. Learning is viewed as part of the bonding process in this program. By linking the learning episodes to bonding, it was thought that the learning games could enhance development. There was no intent to accelerate development. The curriculum has three levels with specific games and activities for each one. The first level is "Bonding through Feelings," with the focus on the maternal-infant relationship. It includes "sharing" activities such as story-telling, selected words/concepts, and relating simple sensory experiences from the mother to the prenate. Paramount to this level are the meditative skills needed to "tune-in" to the needs and states of the prenate and to be able to "distance" negative emotions that could influence the baby. The second level, "Bonding through Music,." Includes five musical selections which were professionally done for the curriculum. The musical component also reinforces feeling and learning activities as part of its design. Four of the arrangements are for the mother/family to sing-along with the unborn. Beats and melodies reinforce basic vowel sounds and family interaction patterns. The fifth musical piece was intented for relaxation and stimulating aware ness. It is a simple melody which utilizes beats and dissonance. The third level is "Bonding through Learning." This unit includes six learning activities. The lessons introduce sequential awareness, auditory localization, visual perception, vowel sound discrimination, and vowel-consonant blends. These activities were repeated on the other two levels as well. A unique feature of the Bonded Beginnings curriculum is it's "cross-modal" approach to early learning (Meltzoff, 1990). In this paradigm, perception is seen as amodal. Amodal perception refers to the infant's ability to take information from one sensory modality and transfer it to another modality. It involves complex mapping processes where there are equivalences matched between what is perceived and the body transformations needed to make a felt response to the perception (ibid). In order to accommodate this position from a prenatal perspective some adaptations were made. Each of the learning activities is simultaneously presented in two or more perceptual modalities. For example, the light trajectory game, "Over the Rainbow" is done by having the penlight pushed down, flashed, and vocally cued all at the same time. All of the other activities functioned in like manner. The simultaneity of multiple sensory cues helps the unborn to integrate the information. The program is conducted once or twice a day for a five to ten minute period. This usually involves one of the musical pieces and a series from the learning level. The first level is structured to be done at any time. To date three families have used the program and the fourth and fifth families are currently using it.
Observing ClairaResponses to the learning activities were categorized by movement patterns. By carefully studying the movement, four main categories were recognized. Movements were tracked along the abdomen wall. The first category was hand/arm movements. In this category, Claira facilitated movement responses primarily with the hand, with additional movement through the wrist, lower forearm, elbow, and some shoulder extension. The movement(s) seemed to utilize an abducted upward move and repetition of flex-extension patterns. It was not possible to determine the extent of any finger movements independent of the hand and wrist. The second category was kicking movements. This category involved extension patterns with the knee and/or hip. It was not possible to determine to what extent head movements accompanied this pattern. A third category involved rolling movements. During the sampling, Claira's spine was positioned against the uterine wall. The rolling moved in an approximate 135 degree rotation from start and back again to point of origin. Often the pattern was repeated in succession. Hip movement may have been involved and there did not seem to be much leg extension in this movement. The fourth category was rhythmic movements. These occurred only when music was played. The defining characteristic of this pattern was a "bouncing" effect from possible hip and/or upper torso movements. The action seemed to be sustained in a brief duration of a regularly recurring element. In the course of six sessions over a two week period of recording, eleven different activities were tried, some with greater frequency than others. Several of the games were ongoing from the twenty eight week of gestation and other were introduced as novelty preference during the audited period. The activities were organized into five major domains. The first was social which included initial greetings from family members, brief conversations, and good-byes. The second was lan guage. This included vowel sound discriminations. The third was visual and involved responses to penlight movements across the mother's abdomen. The fourth domain was auditory which involved localizing to the sound of a bell. The fifth domain, involved responses to music.
Frequency of Movement Patterns to Learning Domains
Claira's Movement Specification Patterns to Categorical Stimuli and Organized Responses
|Stimulus Category||Initial Movements||Specific Organized Pattern||Purpose/Goal|
|Visual||kicking movements||rolling and touching||localize light source|
|Auditory||hand/kicking||rolling||localize to sound source|
|Music||rolling||rhythmic pattern||synchronize body movements to beats|
Movement Responses for Feeling and Musical Activities
|"Sharing Time" Activities||slow gentle movements of arms and/or legs|
|"Tuning-In" Awareness Activity||small hand movements|
|Maternal agitation||sharp, quick, and hard movements|
|"Distancing" Activity||cessation of hard movement & return to quiet state|
|Family Sing-a-Longs to Prenate||gentle hand movements|
DiscussionWhat seems to emerge from this case study of Claira is that pre natal learning is more complex and involved than current research would indicate. Habituation is one technique used to study memory functions in prenates and early infants (Friedman, 1972; Cohen and Gelber, 1975; Fagan, 1984). Habituation methods demonstrate differential responses to both novel and familiarized stimuli as a means of ascertaining if the baby does remember a familiar stimulus (So phian, 1980). Another method is contingency reinforcement to elicit certain learning responses (Rovee-Collier, 1984). In both of these paradigms the stimulus is externally imposed. Both methods look for changes in specific rates (visual, heart, sucking, behavior, etc.). Habituation and contingency reinforcement were evident in the study of Claira. She did learn to recognize and to respond to the [a] sound when reinforced with the penlight. She was able to respond to the social games by pushing back on the abdomen wall. The introduction of nouel stimuli were met with pauses or cessation which could have reflected confusion or surprise. All of these responses are consistent with a habit/procedural type of memory system. Indeed this is well within the Piagetian view that the earliest learning is primarily sensorimotor. However, there are elements in this study which imply that prenatal learning is more than a conditioned response. One was the apparent progressive organization of movement patterns. In addition to changes in rates, we can also see changes in patterns of activity (Bower, 1989). As Bower has pointed out: "we should be looking for a change in pattern of activity, a change to a pattern that shows systematic increases in activity and systematic pauses in activity" (p. 58). The difference in changes may signal a shift from external to internal motivation regarding learning. At some primitive level, the unborn is drawn into relationship with his/her actions in the pursuit of "understanding." Evident in the case study of Claira were systematic changes in activity and pauses. Claira refined her responses to auditory stimuli from a general rolling to the localization of the sound source. The same progression was observed in the visual games when Claira first responded with kicking movements and then by rolling toward the source and touching it with her hand. The pauses in response to the dissonance in the musical piece was met by a new pattern of activity. In each of these examples the stimuli was not changed, although there were changes in her patterns of activity. The inviting question is whether there is also a non habit/non-procedural system of memory functioning at this early learning level. In his work on imitation with very young infants, Meltzoff (1990) has argued for an innate non-habit memory system, particularly as it involves imitation and representational thought. As Meltzoff points out: "There may never be a time that the human infant is confined to a purely habit/procedural mode. In a very real sense, there may be no such thing as an exclusively "sensorimotor period" in the normal human infant (p. 20)". An interesting phenomenon in this study has been Claira's response to object constancy. Object permanence is not expected until much later, generally around six months of age. Contemporary research has shown that this skill is often preceded by the infant's memory and search for an object (Bower, 1971; Moore et al., 1978; Diamond, 1985; Wellman, 1985; Harris, 1987) even though there may be no awareness of the object's independent existence. Claira's localized movement to the bell and her following the light trajectory with her hand would seem to represent this type of behavior. The time lag between light flashes was 1.5 to 2 seconds in duration. Obviously there was enough memory for the object that Claira was also able to locate it. In a real sense, Claira was attempting to recreate the object through her own actions (Sophian, 1980). A further indication of this was her puzzlement when the light was not used to reinforce vowel sounds in a novelty presentation of an activity. During the initial trials of this activity she would hear the [a] sound and see it reinforced with the flashlight. On selected occasions the light was absent which caused some consternation on Claira's part. Later she was able to adapt to the change by touching the abdomen even though the light was not flashed. This was not a consistent pattern, but its presence over several trials indicated her "awareness" of the association pattern, and its presence over several trials indicated her "awareness" of the association between touch and the [a] sound. It would appear from the study that the prenate's perception of the world and ability to respond is a unified perception and not one governed by mere reflexive action. How then does the prenate perceive? Contemporary developmental research (Stern, 1985; Bower, 1989; Meltzoff, 1990; Sallenbach, 1993) sees the young infant as amodal in perception. This refers to the infant's ability to take in information from one sensory modality and transfer it to another sensory modality (Stern, 1985). Thus, the infant is able to "map" visual and auditory cues to his/her own felt response. Bower (1989) sees the young infant as living in a perceptual world determined by "higher order variables". These variables are not tied to the particulars of any one sense but can be presented in two or more senses (p. 173). So strong is this process that when information is presented in a form common to two or more sense modalities, the information "will be registered as events in the psychological world of the newborn (p. 36)". Meltzoff refers to this amodal style as cross-modal functioning in the neonate. Information is transferred from one sensory mode to another. It involves a complex mapping process where equivalences are matched between what is perceived and the body transformations needed to make a felt response to the perception (1990, p. 6). This model can be applied to the apparent imitative skills in very young infants (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977). Never having seen his/her face, (and for some the first time exposure to adult facial gestures), the young infant sees a stranger perform a tongue protrusion and is able to imitate it. In the Meltzoff's model, the infant takes in the visual information, feels the transformation in the body, and reproduces the action. Such representational transformations certainly infer a non-habit/non-procedural memory system as the transformations operate more from recall than from a contingency reinforcement. It may very well be that Claira's movement patterns represent a cross-modality response to the learning activities. The Bonded Beginnings activities purposefully provided two or more sensory modalities as the delivery system. The stimuli were perceived and then transformed into tactile and motoric responses by Claira. At the limited level of investigation for this study, we can only report on her responses as tactile or motoric. Further research into auditory and visual transformations would be worth investigating. Bower (1989) makes an observation relevant for this study. He feels that the muscles and joints can act as higher order variables in amodal perception. In other words, information taken in via one sense, say visual, can be fed into proprioceptive coordinates and shared with other modalities. This view is shared by Meltzoff (1985; 1990) in the idea of active intermodal mapping (AIM), where "neonates can, at some level of processing, apprehend the equivalence between body transformations they see and body transformations of their own that they "feel" themselves make. The adult's gesture would truly act as a model against which infants would compare their responses (1990, p. 6)."
Claira's Learning Domains and the Cross-Modal Mappings Suggested
|Learning Domain||Sensory Input||Mapping||Movement Coordinates|
|Language||auditory/visual/ tactile||tactile||knee/hip/(some wrist)|
ImplicationsThe most obvious implication from this and other studies is that more research is required in order to understand pre natal learning and bonding processes. At best, we have only begun to appreciate the learning modalities active during the prenatal period. Rather than proceeding along theoretical constructs using antiquated research models, we need to be attuned to what the prenate is capable of experiencing. Such an approach needs to avoid both the mystification of the prenate and simplistic assumptions The information from this study suggests that we look at the prenatal paradigm as etiological and epigenetic in regards to later infant cognitive development. For instance, does object permanence have a prenatal correlate in regards to object awareness? Claira was able to localize to a specific place during certain activities. Both object awareness and spatial awareness infer relevant memory functions toward an object knowledge. The information in this study suggests that there is a continuous line of development to object permanence from the prenatal period. Further exploration of memory functions would be very important in clarifying this aspect. Means/ends behavior may also have an etiological aspect during the prenatal period. The prenate is very familiar with the use of his/her uterine "toys"; namely the fluid, the placenta, and the umbilical cord. There is ample documentation that the unborn are occupied with them. This study suggests there is an elementary awareness of action which enables participation in games. Spatiality is another developmental area which is worthy of further investigation during the prenatal period. Information from this study indicates under certain circumstances that visual and auditory perception may be distal as well as proximal. As such, Claira was able to locate objects and movement in space. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect would be the presence, or predisposition, of early imitative skills during the late prenatal period. This study did not focus specifically on this skill, but some of the responses point to this possibility. This is especially plausible when one considers that imitative abilities have been discovered in premature and full term babies only minutes old. Claira herself imitated facial gestures when thirty minutes old Perhaps paramount for further research (and an item only slightly discussed in this paper) is the connection between prenatal cognitive and social development. For Claira, learning was within a social and familial context. Bonding is a term which describes the intensity and degree of relations within an interactive model. Research which attempts to look at prenatal imitative skills could provide us with a better understanding of the close relation between social and cognitive development. Within this exchange is the young child's acute interest in adults. We hope this case study of Claira provides a broader understanding of the complexity and depth that characterize prenatal learning. It is important that we not limit our understanding by use of limited research methodologies. Usually, prenatal studies focus on neurological functions, contingency behaviors, and developmental outcomes. Such descriptions are not the best paradigms for defining learning and psychological processes. Perhaps by understanding better the origins of our interests, we can look differently at our paradigms for learning.
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