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WETZSTEIN: ‘Buzz’ memories start before birth

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

First of two parts

I recently saw news articles about a Dutch study that said fetuses have "memory" by 30 weeks gestation.

If you missed the stories, here's a recap.

During their last eight weeks of pregnancy, some 100 women were given a series of short, vibrating "buzzes" on their bellies on five different occasions. Each time, the fetuses were monitored by ultrasound to capture their reactions.

The researchers found that as the harmless buzzings became familiar, the babies would "habituate" to them, or react less, even ignoring them.

This, the researchers say, shows the fetuses were recognizing and remembering the stimulus. In fact, the 34-week-old fetuses were able "to store information and retrieve it, four weeks later," said researchers from Maastricht University Medical Centre and University Medical Centre St. Radboud, whose study appeared in the July/August issue of Child Development.

This news about fetal memory reminded me of a book I read years ago called "Babies Remember Birth," by psychologist David B. Chamberlain.

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According to this 1988 book, people under hypnosis can remember their own births. "Glenda," for instance, recalled her head "being squeezed" as her mother raced to the hospital. "Theresa" felt like she was "more down than up" and "Marianne" said she resisted being born until a "tidal wave" pushed her out.

Other people recalled details about delivery rooms and comments by doctors, nurses and parents. "The most universal complaint of newborns is being separated from their mothers," Mr. Chamberlain wrote.

To validate these birth memories, Mr. Chamberlain found 10 mothers and children who had never discussed the child's birth, and asked them questions about it, separately, under hypnosis. Their reports "dovetailed" remarkably. Seven of the 10 pairs reported at least a dozen specific, shared memories of the birth, with few or no contradictions.

One child, for instance, recalled hearing her mother say that she didn't like "Virginia" or "Ginger." The mother said she and her husband were indeed disagreeing about baby names: "I want to name the baby Mary Kathryne and Bobby wants to name her Ginger."

Another child said the labor process began in the daytime, with contractions starting around 1:10 p.m. The mother said she stayed in bed until 11:30 a.m., but knew she was in labor "around one o'clock."

Mr. Chamberlain's interest in birth memories is still going strong after more than 20 years, but what does mainstream psychology think about this issue?

Let's just say they are proceeding gingerly. Memory research is a high priority, due to interest in aging and Alzheimer's disease. At the beginning of life, research is also under way to measure the memories of "preverbal" infants.

The prevailing psychological view is that people cannot consciously remember anything until about age 3. That's because until a child's brain cortex grows to a certain size, the capacity for long-term storage of memory isn't very big, psychologist David G. Myers said in his 2007 book, "Psychology."

What about fetal-memory studies like the recent Dutch one? Well, Mr. Myers noted, "habituation" in unborn children has indeed been studied since the 1980s. (It was discovered in the 1920s.) This, however, doesn't mean babies can "remember" their time in the womb, as tempting a conclusion as that may be, said the Oxford Handbook on Memory.

As for birth or childhood memories retrieved under hypnosis, 60 years of research dispute such claims, Mr. Myers wrote.

One might think Mr. Chamberlain, 81, and his colleagues will stay on the margins of science, but that's not necessarily the case. "We know a great deal more about the baby now," he told me, and a growing body of research suggests human beings not only can remember their time in the womb, they also can think, understand and communicate with people while they're in there.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.