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Published On: Wed, Aug 28th, 2013

Latest scientific report confirms babies learn to recognize words, sounds in the womb

Scientists continue to explore, examine and confirm that babies learn to recognize words and sounds in the womb. The new analysis states that the baby does so well at recognizing the words that he or she has memories of them after birth.

 photo Ivon19 via wikimedia commons

photo Ivon19 via wikimedia commons

ScienceMag.org explains that “the sound-processing parts of their brain become active in the last trimester of pregnancy, and sound carries fairly well through the mother’s abdomen. “If you put your hand over your mouth and speak, that’s very similar to the situation the fetus is in,” says cognitive neuroscientist Eino Partanen of the University of Helsinki. “You can hear the rhythm of speech, rhythm of music, and so on.”‘

Studies dating back to the late 1980’s confirmed music could be recognized, or even theme music from a television show the woman watched during pregnancy.

The article adds: “…those studies were based on babies’ behaviors, which can be tricky to test. Partanen and his team decided instead to outfit babies with EEG sensors to look for neural traces of memories from the womb.”

“Once we learn a sound, if it’s repeated to us often enough, we form a memory of it, which is activated when we hear the sound again,” Partanen explains.

This memory speeds up recognition of sounds in the learner’s native language and can be detected as a pattern of brain waves, even in a sleeping baby.

So, here’s the new analysis:

The team gave expectant women a recording to play several times a week during their last few months of pregnancy, which included a made-up word, “tatata,” repeated many times and interspersed with music. Sometimes the middle syllable was varied, with a different pitch or vowel sound. By the time the babies were born, they had heard the made-up word, on average, more than 25,000 times. And when they were tested after birth, these infants’ brains recognized the word and its variations, while infants in a control group did not, Partanen and colleagues report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Babies who had heard the recordings showed the neural signal for recognizing vowel and pitch changes in the pseudoword, and the signal was strongest for the infants whose mothers played the recording most often. They were also better than the control babies at detecting other differences in the syllables, such as vowel length. “This leads us to believe that the fetus can learn much more detailed information than we previously thought,” Partanen says, and that the memory traces are detectable after birth.

“This is a well-respected group and the effects are really convincing,” says Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Combined with previous work, she says, these results suggest “that language learning begins in the womb.”

Check out the full article here

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