How do I measure children's ability to learn

The ability to learn is acquired in the womb

Anthology outlines a new perspective on embryonic development

Reviewed by Ulf Geuter

Modern prenatal psychology offers new insights into the development of children. (AP)

What a person experiences in the months leading up to his or her birth is the basis for what he will learn afterwards. Among the many publications on prenatal psychology, the volume "Basics of a prenatal psychology" edited by the Dutch psychotherapist couple I. and H. Krens stands out.

Learning takes place in the womb. What a person experiences in the months leading up to his or her birth is the basis for what he will continue to learn afterwards. This is shown by modern prenatal psychology. Several books have been published this year about the child in the womb. Among them, the anthology "Basics of prenatal psychology", edited by the Dutch psychotherapists Inge and Hans Krens, stands out because it approaches the topic in a technically demanding yet understandable manner for laypeople.

The book begins with a contribution by the Dutch psychologist Sylvia Nossent, in which she outlines the main features of a new view of embryonic development. Development is not governed by genetic information. Rather, more recent research shows that heritage and the environment are mutually shaped in a dynamic process in which the embryo participates through its own activity. The author gives a vivid example of this claim from animal research: ducklings prefer the call of their own kind. However, they do not do this if their vocal cords are stuck together before they hatch and they therefore cannot hear their own voices.

The vocal expression of the embryo itself, which picks up a piece of the eggshell a few days before hatching, is therefore necessary in order to align it with the mother animal. This alignment is neither genetically determined nor learned solely through external stimuli, but rather the result of a development in a system to which the activity of the embryo belongs.

From a contribution by the Irish prenatal psychologist Peter Hepper, we learn another example of the importance of the embryo's own activity. Research into the development of right-handedness has so far assumed that its cause lies in the asymmetry of the brain. However, observations on fetuses show the following: Embryos already practice the functions of the arms between the fifth and tenth week of pregnancy. During this time, these movements are not controlled by the brain, but by the muscles and the spinal cord. For an unknown reason, however, most of them prefer movements with the right hand. The first brain asymmetries, on the other hand, are not found until the 16th week of pregnancy.

The activity of the embryo and the stimuli it receives, especially its interaction with the mother, determine the interconnections that the nerve cells form in the brain, writes brain researcher Gerald Hüther, and not genetic programs. Clear evidence of this is the finding that children are more likely to suffer from attention disorder or sleep disorders later if the mother suffered from anxiety or stress during pregnancy. Because much of what the children bring into the world as 'innate', they have learned in the womb. These are, for example, preferences for taste - depending on the mother's food - or for music that she heard in the womb.

Hüther writes that the brain preserves memory images of the exchange between the fetus and the external world. These cannot be put into words later, but can be called up in fragments and vague via body sensations. This supports psychotherapists who try physical and creative methods to work on prenatal traumatic experiences of patients. The book gives a lot of good information to everyone who deals with pregnant women, premature babies, infants and young children. At the same time, people interested in development theory will find a well-founded new understanding of human development that moves away from the old dispute over ‘heritage or environment’.

Non-fiction book: "Basics of a prenatal psychology" by Krens & Krens (ed.) / Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 2005