Myth: The Fetus' Brain and Personality Development Are Independent of their Womb Experience
Fact: Over the past decade, revolutionary discoveries in neuroscience and developmental psychology have shattered long-held misconceptions about fetal development. Today we know that from the moment of conception, the "wiring" of a child's brain is strongly influenced by her environment. While it is true that the brain is sensitive to experience throughout life, experience during the critical periods of fetal development and the early hours and days of life after birth play a primary role in determining the architecture of the brain, and the nature and extent of adult capacities.
This explains why mothers report so much fetal activity so early in pregnancy. Interacting with the environment through movement, the prenate's experiences build the scaffolding under which the brain takes shape. It is impossible to separate mind from body, or nature from nurture. Our brains, and consequently our personalities, emerge from a complex interplay between the genes we are born with and the experiences we have.
While the realization that genetics is not destiny, and that environment is paramount to development, places new responsibilities on parents, it also engenders new opportunities.
Even though it has long been known that a calm pregnancy creates a favorable context for development, scores of studies in recent years have documented the potential for increased risk of lifelong problems for prenates exposed to excessive maternal stress, anxiety, and depression. This is not surprising, given that maternal feelings and moods are linked to hormones and neurotransmitters that travel through the bloodstream and across the placenta to the developing brain of unborn child. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones primes the brain to react in fight-or-flight mode--even when inappropriate--throughout life. On the other hand, maternal feelings centered on joy and love bathe the growing brain in "feel good" endorphins and neurohormones such as oxytocin, and promote a lifelong sense of wellbeing. Parents--and hence their unborn--do better when living in a calm, addiction-free environment, supported by family and friends.
Thomas R. Verny, Preparenting: Nurturing Your Baby from Conception
Thomas R. Verny, The Secret Life of the Unborn Child*