Babies are not the blank slates we once thought they were. Research shows that babies begin learning while still in womb, conditioning themselves to their world before entering it. And this learning can arise from listening, a sense that can reach beyond the womb’s protective cocoon to sample the outside world.
The auditory system develops early on, with evidence of hearing by the 16th week of pregnancy. By the third trimester, babies can discern subtle complexities and variations in sounds from outside the womb. This is when listening-based learning begins.
Researchers have shown that music can stimulate the fetal brain, lying down long-term neural traces and influencing brain development.
Learning is an experience-dependent process, called plasticity, which is at its height in early development. When a new and meaningful stimulus occurs, the information is encoded, deconstructed, and imprinted in the brain. A neural trace is formed, creating a circuit in the brain, and the information is stored in a memory. Memory is intimately linked to learning because memories lay down a framework upon which new knowledge can be built. The more a neural circuit is stimulated, the stronger the framework becomes.
In 2013 researchers from the Universities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä decided to probe the extent of fetal learning – is it merely short-term recall or can memories be preserved long-term in the fetal brain? To test for this, a unique playlist of songs was created, ranging in composition from simple melodies to complex symphonies interspersed with random sounds and speech excerpts. Expectant mothers played the CD’s at least 5 times a day during their last trimester. When the babies were born, the CD’s were destroyed. Shortly after birth, and then again at 4 months, the babies’ brains were tested for memory recall of the music. By testing at both birth and four months, they could differentiate between short-term recall and long-term memory-based learning. They wanted to know if the exposure had induced and reinforced specific neural circuitry, effectively weaving a new framework into the brain.
The researchers used EEGs to map event-related potentials (ERPs) in the babies’ brains. An ERP is an electrical signature generated when a group of neural circuits collectively respond to a specific stimulus, here music. After four months of not hearing the music, the pieces still ignited a distinctive neural response. This meant that the music had induced long-lasting changes in the babies’ brains; neural circuits were created, engaged, reinforced, and maintained. Further, this response was directly correlated to the amount of listening the babies had done in utero. This listening: learning correlation suggested exposure, not genetics, was the driving force behind learning.
A lingering question left unanswered by this work is, if a fetus can learn through listening, then which musical elements have the greatest impact on long-term meaningful retention? Babies are notorious for habituation, becoming conditioned to repeated sounds. The more babies hear a particular sound, say a dog barking, the less meaning they ascribe to it and the barking dog simply becomes background noise. In this study, the researchers specifically segmented simple and complex musical pieces with talking and other sounds to provide a shifting, surprising context, which is believed to aid the learning process. While there were no controls in place to determine if such elements enhanced learning, it poses an interesting question. As they say, context is everything.
Overall, this study highlights the importance of the fetal auditory environment and how this environment can impact development. Given the sensitivity of babies to sound, music is an ideal tool to enhance fetal cognitive development. Musical interventions can intertwine extensive, lasting circuitry into the brain and is associated with a bevy of benefits, including enhanced reasoning, memory, and spatial awareness. If appropriate music-based neural frameworks can be established in the fetal brain, then this could potentially jumpstart the learning process before a baby even enters into the world. Further, as noted by the authors, this work may have significant application in devising prenatal therapies for babies at risk for disorders where the auditory system is impaired.
1. Partanen, E., et al., Prenatal music exposure induces long-term neural effects. PLoS ONE, 2013. 8(10): p. e78946.