Through most of the 20th Century, neither medicine nor psychology provided an accurate understanding of the nature of babies in the womb or babies at birth. Among the serious errors were these: babies are passive and helpless; babies don’t learn or remember; babies are not capable of emotion; and babies do not feel pain. These views misled parents and misdirected professionals in their work with babies.
Physicians failed to recognize the great vulnerability of neonates to all forms of pain trauma: the trauma of surgery without anesthesia, repeated pain trauma in neonatal intensive care, obstetrician-caused pain at birth, and (especially in the United States) the practice of genital mutilation of newborn males. Surgeons of the 20th century expressed the fear that babies might be harmed by pain-killing anesthesia but had no such fear they would be harmed by surgery without anesthesia (See Pernick, 1985). Experts considered babies incapable of either experiencing or putting any meaning into pain. Birth pain reached new heights in the 1940s when medical specialists began to dominate childbirth in America (Chamberlain, 1998a; Denniston & Milos, 1997).
In retrospect, we can now appreciate that scientific attitudes and methods were too crude to reveal the actual quality of infant life in the womb or at birth. Perhaps the greatest single handicap of professionals was the idea that brains were the complete measure of mind, self, and psyche. The prevailing view was that brains of prenates and neonates were not sufficient to support cognitive, emotional, or perceptual activity, including perception of pleasure or perception of parents. Neuroanatomy did not support a “psyche” in prenatal or perinatal life.
During recent decades, with advances in ultrasound observation and more creative experimental designs, life in the womb has been progressively illuminated, overturning traditional assumptions in developmental psychology and in medicine. Research now reveals a prenate unlike anything previously described—richly equipped with senses, reactive to environmental conditions, expressive of feelings, and attentive to both love and danger. (For reviews see Chamberlain, 1994 and 1998b). Social interaction between twins in utero, including hitting, kicking, and playing have been observed via ultrasound from 20 weeks gestational age (Piontelli, 1992). Arabin and colleagues (1996) have catalogued first touching between twins as it develops from nine to thirteen weeks gestational age.
Parents have seen fetal aggression against needles entering the womb during amniocentesis at 16 weeks. Their babies have sometimes retreated and sometimes repeatedly attacked the barrel of a needle—this at an age when eyes are undeveloped and lids are fused. Such demonstrations of “eyeless” vision and perfect coordination to reach the target, convey urgency, will, and purpose that defies conventional explanation.
Many experiments have shown how the intimate involvement of prenates with parents results in discriminative and preferential learning of music, stories, rhymes, and the sounds of the mother’s native language (DeCasper & Spence 1986; DeCasper et al., 1994; Moon, Cooper & Fifer, 1993). In utero, babies even react to parental sham-smoking, that is, to un-lit cigarettes (Little & Hepper, 1995), a reaction that is psychological with no chemical component to explain it.
Such empirical findings provide new support for a belief shared by many psychotherapists that emotional and mental pathologies are learned from traumatic events in utero and at birth. Using a variety of clinical methods, persuasive connections between trauma and symptoms later in life have been established by Frank Lake in England (See Maret 1997), Thomas Verny in Canada (1981), Ludwig Janus in Germany (1997), and in the United States by David Cheek (1975), Arthur Janov (1983), and David Chamberlain (2000).
Research today generally shows that babies notice and care about their environment. They express their feelings in body language, in abrupt changes in breathing movements, aggressive activity, or withdrawal (See review by Chamberlain, 1999). Minute longitudinal examination of the fetal larynx under ultrasound reveals the first movements associated with sound production come at 18 weeks conceptual age (Ramon y Cajal, 1996). From this point, phonation ultimately develops into uterine crying--an old and well-documented phenomenon whose significance has been largely ignored (See documentation by Ryder, 1943). After birth, with the help of greater muscular development and abundant air, phonation erupts in protesting cries at birth and quickly blossoms into the wide spectrum of meaningful human sounds that continue throughout life.
Long before any spoken language can develop, babies in the womb seem to keenly perceive what their mothers and fathers are feeling and saying about them. Babies always know at an unconscious level if they are wanted or unwanted—a perception reflected in significantly elevated risk of death in the first 28 days of life between wanted and unwanted babies (Bustan & Coker, 1994). The same keen perception is the foundation for the long trail of sorrows revealed in longitudinal studies by David, Dytrych, Matejcek, & Schuller reported in Born Unwanted: Developmental Effects of Denied Abortion (1988). Following earnest prenatal dialog between a mother and baby about the necessity for abortion, spontaneous miscarriage provides further evidence of precocious understanding on the part of prenates (See McGarey, 1980; Riley, 1987; and McGarey & Stern, 1997).
David Cheek has found direct evidence for telepathic communication (i.e., direct knowing) on the part of babies in the womb revealed by accurate recall of mother’s clothing never seen after birth (Cheek, 1992 and 1996). Similarly, parents, nurses, and midwives have reported a prompt behavioral response from babies in both the womb and the intensive care nursery to urgent communications addressed to them in situations of danger. Such effective communications, offered in different languages and reported from different countries, draw on actual capacities of a hidden psyche (Szejer, 2005; Chamberlain, 2003).
Using various therapeutic processes with children and adults has made it apparent that prenates and neonates are capable of altered states of consciousness such as out-of-body experience, near-death experience, and even past life recall (Bowman, 1997; Chamberlain 2000). Such findings, although startling in the way they take us beyond material boundaries, are nevertheless coherent with studies of the same natural abilities in older children and adults (Stevenson, 1987; Grof 1988, Ring 1984). All these findings confirm that “babies” have an active and capable psyche. Although they are very tiny humans, they far exceed all previous theories of their developmental limitations (Chamberlain, 1992).
Although scientists usually think it inappropriate (indeed anthropomorphic) to compare prenatal states with adult states, the similarities are striking. Near-death experiences (at any age) confirm that important learning events take place at a time when psyche and brain are in different locations. These demonstrations affirm that there is certainly more to human consciousness than brain matter. Importantly, the unexpected verification of “eyeless” vision among blind persons during near-death experiences (Ring & Cooper, 1997) actually parallels the surprising fetal “vision” sometimes manifested during amniocentesis at 16 weeks. Indeed, baby humans and adult humans display similar psychic abilities.
Finally, there is a new literature of reports from parents revealing that babies possess spiritual powers not scientifically acknowledged, and not explainable within the brain-matter paradigm. Two books contain multiple stories of parents having profound encounters with babies not yet conceived. In the book Soul Trek by Elizabeth Hallett (1995) 180 parents tell their personal experiences of dreams, visions, appearances, and other kinds of vivid events in which a future baby announces its coming, and brings love, encouragement, and guidance to mother and father. Thirty more cases are presented by Sarah Hinze in Coming From the Light: Spiritual Accounts of Life Before Birth (1997). A U.S. television show “Sightings” dramatized some of these stories for millions of viewers. Hinze was also featured in a segment of Hard Copy (CBS) in Spring 1998. For more stories see the APPPAH website at:www.birthpsychology.com/lifebefore/concept.html.
Although psyche is the core of the word “psychology,” contemporary psychologists have not accepted the full meaning of psyche as mind, self, and soul, preferring to define psyche as brain. However, the brain-matter paradigm fails to explain precocious communication, intelligence, memory and learning early in gestation.
Looking at the full spectrum of experimental, clinical and self-report evidence now available, I would argue that a psyche (meaning mind, self, and soul) does exist throughout gestation independent of brain development. This psyche is incorporating experiences continually via memory and learning, a fact that suggests these are joint faculties of knowing that appear to be innate rather than developmental (Chamberlain, 1998c).
These emerging realities should, of course, inspire an entirely new set of guidelines about how to think about and how to treat babies of all ages. In the larger perspective of the baby as mind=self=soul, all time periods become real because experience is a continuum. As therapists well know, early learning can have long-term consequences that are “for better and for worse.” This strongly underscores the powerful influence of parents during the earliest period of human development from conception to birth.
This much should be clear, based on the evidence for a prenatal psyche: In caring for babies of any age, both parents and professionals should be constantly aware of their attentive and vulnerable nature, their spiritual identity, and their desire to be treated as persons.
Through most of the 20th Century, neither medicine nor psychology provided an accurate understanding of the nature of babies in the womb or babies at birth. Perhaps the most fundamental misconception was that brains were the only measure of mind, self and soul. The prevailing view for a hundred years held that brains of prenates and neonates were insufficient to support cognitive, emotional, or perceptual activity. Yet, contemporary research reveals a prenate unlike any previously described—well equipped with senses, reactive to environmental conditions, expressive of feelings, and social in relation to twins and parents. These findings suggest that prenates do possess a “psyche” in the original sense of the word--mind, self, and soul.
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JOURNAL OF PRENATAL AND PERINATAL PSYCHOLOGY AND HEALTH publishes research and clinical articles from the cutting edge of the science of prenatal and perinatal psychology and health. The journal, published quarterly since 1986, is dedicated to the in-depth exploration human reproduction and pregnancy and the mental and emotional development of the unborn and newborn child.