When Does Learning Begin?

May 3, 2013
Originally published on September 4, 2015 9:00 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Unstoppable Learning.

About Annie Murphy Paul's TED Talk

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul talks about how fetuses in the womb begin taking cues from the outside world, from the lilt of our native language to our favorite foods.

About Annie Murphy Paul

To what extent do the conditions we encounter before birth influence our individual characteristics? It's the question at the center of fetal origins, a relatively new field of research that measures how effects of influences outside the womb during pregnancy can shape the physical, mental and even emotional well-being of the developing baby for the rest of its life.

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul calls it a gray zone between nature and nurture. Her book Origins is a history and study of this emerging field structured around a personal narrative — Paul was pregnant with her second child at the time. What she finds suggests a far more dynamic nature between mother and fetus than typically acknowledged, and opens up the possibility that the time before birth is as crucial to human development as early childhood.

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It's the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, unstoppable learning. How learning happens even when we're not aware of it.


ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: And in that spirit, I want to spring on you all, a pop quiz. Ready? When does learning begin?

RAZ: This is from a TED Talk given by science writer, Annie Murphy Paul.


PAUL: Now as you ponder that question, maybe you're thinking about the first day of preschool or kindergarten, or maybe you've called to mind the toddler phase when children are learning how to walk and talk and use a fork. Maybe you've encountered the Zero-to-Three movement which asserts that the most important years for learning are the earliest ones. Well, today I want to present to you an idea that may be surprising, that may even seem implausible, but which is supported by the latest evidence from psychology and biology. And that is that some of the most important learning we ever do happens before we're born, while we're still in the womb.

RAZ: Annie's TED Talk was about this relatively new field of study, called fetal origins.


PAUL: And it's based on the theory that our health and well-being throughout our lives is crucially affected by the nine months we spend in the womb. When we hold our babies for the first time, we might imagine that they're clean slates, unmarked by life, when in fact they've already been shaped by us and by the particular world we live in. Today, I want to share with you some of the amazing things that scientists are discovering about what fetuses learn while they're still in their mother's bellies.

RAZ: And it's really loud in there, right?

PAUL: Oh, yeah, because there's the woman's heart. (Makes heartbeat sounds). Her breathing which is like (Big breath in and out). Her swallowing. There's a lot of sort of rushing sounds, the woman's digestive system is right there (Makes rushing sounds).

RAZ: It's a symphony of organs.

PAUL: Yes, then of course her voice, which is probably booming. Sounds kind of like the teacher's voice in Charlie Brown. So it's really noisy in there.

RAZ: They're coming out of like CBGB and then when the babies come out we're like, (whispering) hello, baby. Hi, baby. But then, and they're like, why are you whispering, because it was really loud?

PAUL: Yeah, and they're like this is weird, I'm going to cry. We tend to think of the fetus as sealed off in this bubble, but really they are here in the world with us.

RAZ: Are they learning things in the womb that we can measure? That we know they're learning?

PAUL: Yes. We know that fetuses are learning in the sense of becoming familiar with certain stimuli, and let me give you an example. The sound of your mother's voice.


PAUL: Once the baby is born, it recognizes her voice and it prefers listening to her voice over anyone else's. How can we know this? Newborn babies can't do much but one thing they're really good at is sucking. Researchers take advantage of this fact by rigging up two rubber nipples, so that if a baby sucks on one, it hears a recording of its mother's voice on a pair of headphones, and if it sucks on the other nipple, it hears a recording of a female stranger's voice.

Babies quickly show their preference by choosing the first one. My favorite experiment of this kind is the one that showed that the babies of women who watched a certain soap opera everyday during pregnancy recognized the theme song of that show once they were born. So fetuses are even learning about the particular language that's spoken in the world that they'll be born into. A study published last year found that from birth, from the moment of birth, babies cry in the accent of their mother's native language.

RAZ: Okay, so Annie, we have some audio of a French baby and a German baby. Take a listen, this is the German baby.


RAZ: Okay, here is the French baby.


RAZ: Okay, let's do it again. German.


RAZ: French.


RAZ: Can you hear a difference?

PAUL: Oh, sure.

RAZ: Yeah, you can actually, can't you?

PAUL: Yeah, the French baby sounded the inflection was kind of rising and the German baby sounded like his or her cry was going down.


PAUL: Now why would this kind of fetal learning be useful? It may have evolved to aid the baby's survival. From the moment of birth, the baby responds most to the voice of the person who is most likely to care for it, its mother. It even makes its cries sound like the mother's language, which may further endear the baby to the mother, and which may give the baby a head start in the critical task of learning how to understand and speak its native language. But it's not just sounds that fetuses are learning about in utero. It's also tastes and smells. By seven months of gestation, the fetus' taste buds are fully developed and its olfactory receptors, which allow it to smell, are functioning. The flavors of the food a pregnant woman eats find their way into the amniotic fluid, which is continuously swallowed by the fetus. Babies seem to remember and prefer these tastes once they're out in the world.

In one experiment, a group of pregnant women was asked to drink a lot of carrot juice during their third trimester of pregnancy, while another group of women, pregnant women, drank only water. Six months later, the women's infants were offered cereal mixed with carrot juice, and their facial expressions were observed while they ate it. The offspring of the carrot juice drinking women ate more carrot-flavored cereal and from the looks of it, they seemed to enjoy it more. A sort of French version of this experiment was carried out in Dijon, France, where researchers found that mothers who consumed food and drink flavored with licorice-flavored anise during pregnancy showed a preference for anise on their first day of life. And again, when they were tested later on their fourth day of life. Babies whose mothers did not eat anise during pregnancy showed a reaction that translated roughly, as yuck. What this means is that fetuses are effectively being taught by their mothers about what is safe and good to eat. Fetuses are also being taught about the particular culture that they'll be joining through one of culture's most powerful expressions, which is food. They're being introduced to the characteristic flavors and spices of their culture's cuisine even before birth.

Things like the woman's diet, the woman's stress level, even the woman's, sort of, mental state, these things can be communicated to the fetus, and they are incredibly plastic. They're incredibly malleable. And they're already preparing for exactly this sort of environment that they're going to enter, even before their very first day on Earth.

RAZ: That's unbelievable.

PAUL: One of my favorite findings is that eating chocolate when you're pregnant seems to be connected to having a happier baby.

RAZ: Oh, really?

PAUL: Yeah. You know, I researched and wrote this book when I was pregnant with my second child, and I took that as license to eat as much chocolate as I wanted. And he is quite a happy baby, I should say.


PAUL: Fetal origins research is about discovering how best to promote the health and well-being of the next generation. That important effort must include a focus on what fetuses learn during the nine months they spend in the womb. Learning is one of life's most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined. Thank you.


RAZ: Science writer, Annie Murphy Paul. Check out her full talk at TED.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.