Mysteries of Prenatal Consciousness

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

When in our lives do we become human beings? Until recently scientists believed that the infant was a virtual blank and, following Freud's dictum, that only at two or three years of age could personality begin to form. Gradually, however, over the last fifty years investigators have begun to break through the ignorance, preconceptions, and lack of data surrounding the prenatal and infant states to reveal a very different picture of these early stages of life. This emerging view gives a broader perspective on human consciousness and the intimate connections among human beings, as well as new insights into the meaning and responsibilities of parenthood.

Recent research on infants shows that even at birth the child has mastered many sophisticated physical and psychological skills (Descriptions of these findings appear in such books as Infant Culture by Jane and Joseph Jackson). It is increasingly clear that the infant develops these skills in the prenatal period. In The Secret Life of the Unborn Child (Thomas Verny, M.D., with John Kelly, Dell Publishing, New York, 1981, 253 pages, paper, $8.95), Dr. Thomas Verny reports that the unborn child is not

the passive, mindless creature of the traditional pediatrics texts.
We now know that the unborn child is an aware, reacting human being who from the sixth month on (and perhaps even earlier) leads an active emotional life. Along with this startling finding we have made these discoveries:
The fetus can see, hear, experience, taste and, on a primitive level, even learn in utero . . . Most importantly, he can feel -- not with an adult's sophistication, but feel nonetheless. -- p. 12

The unborn's capacity for these activities can be seen in his physical development. At the sixteenth week of pregnancy, for example, the child becomes sensitive to light, though vision develops slowly in the dim, confined prenatal environment. By the fourth month he has developed basic reflexes and a repertoire of facial expressions. At five or six months he is as sensitive to touch as a newborn. From the 24th week on he hears all the time -- listening to the noises in his mother's body, and to voices, music, etc. Between 28 to 34 weeks his brain's neural circuits are as advanced as a newborn's and the cerebral cortex is mature enough to support consciousness; a few weeks later brain waves, including those of REM dreams, become distinct. Thus, throughout the third trimester he is equipped with most of the physiological capability of a newborn.

Even more intriguing is evidence of the impact of the mother's and father's attitudes and feelings on their unborn child. Based on the findings of many other researchers as well as his own experience as a psychoanalyst, Dr. Verny presents evidence that the attitude of the mother toward the pregnancy and the child, as well as toward her partner, have a profound effect on the psychological development of the child and on the birth experience. The mother by her patterns of feeling and behavior is the chief source of the stimuli which shape the fetus. Communication between mother and her unborn child takes place in several ways: physically (through hormones, for example), in behavior (the child's kicking, the mother's job and environmental situation), and sympathetically or intuitively (through love, ambivalence, dreams). One of the main means for communication of maternal attitudes and feelings is the neurohormones the mother releases, which increase when she is under stress. These substances cross the placenta as easily as nutrients, alcohol, and other drugs do. In moderation these hormones cause physiological reactions in the child which stimulate his neural and psychological systems beneficially, but in excess they can affect the developing body adversely. Because of the child's resilience, it is only extreme and, generally, long-lasting stress that leaves marked negative effects, not isolated thoughts or incidents. Moreover, the mother's love, acceptance, and positive thoughts for the unborn child act as a very strong protection, so he will continue to thrive even if her own situation is troubled. But if his needs for affection and attention are not met, "his spirit and often his body, too, begin wilting" (p. 27).

Looking at prenatal processes from the standpoint of spirit, it is not surprising that the child functions as a conscious entity early in his development. A human being is not the by-product of his physical organization, but a living stream of consciousness-substance expressing itself periodically through a physical body that forms around its own nonphysical matrix or astral model-body. This stream of consciousness reaches beyond the emotions and mind to the spiritual and divine -- and beyond. The different centers of consciousness that together make a complete human being can be visualized as a series of vortices which form at various points in this living stream.

Far from being the result of mechanical physical processes, then, the unborn child is the expression of a preexisting spiritual-psychomental entity, a human being who is seeking to reimbody again after having lived many previous times on this planet. The child plays a major role on inner lines in bringing about conception, and this interplay of parents and child working to keep the pregnancy viable continues until birth (For a more detailed discussion of the reimbodying process, see "Abortion and the Reincarnating Ego," Alan Donant, SUNRISE, Aug/Sep 1989). To perceive people as overwhelmingly psychospiritual rather than physical allows us to see the birth process from an inner, causal standpoint, rather than confining attention exclusively to the physical realm of effects.

What the child experiences in the womb creates predispositions, expectations, and vulnerabilities rather than specific qualities: we are dealing with susceptibility, not predetermination. Increases in maternal neurohormones -- such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and oxytocin -- do, however, heighten the child's biological susceptibility to emotional distress by altering the portion of the child's autonomic nervous system which controls physiological processes affecting personality structure. An excess of such maternal hormones has been related to low birth weight, reading difficulties, behavior problems, and gastric disorders. Cigarette smoking, by reducing the amount of oxygen in the mother's blood, has been linked to anxiety in infants traceable to the prenatal period. Most traumatic of all is when the mother, due to illness, a severe loss, or hostility to the pregnancy, withdraws her love and support from her unborn child. He then falls into a depression, is apt to emerge as an apathetic newborn, and may be plagued with depression throughout his life. In one case, a newborn girl refused to bond with or nurse from her own mother, though she did not refuse other women. The mother, it turned out, had wanted to have an abortion and bore the child grudgingly at the father's insistence. With such mothers, the "child lacks a feeling person to whom he can attach himself. His mother becomes absorbed in herself and has no resources left for the baby" (p. 79); nor can he bond with a woman overburdened with anxiety or frustration.

The unborn child appears to distinguish very clearly between different types of maternal stress. He is affected most strongly by the mother's negative or ambivalent attitude toward the pregnancy, and also by a stressful relationship between the mother and her partner or by a habitual high level of anxiety and fear. As Dr. Verny puts it:

If loving, nurturing mothers bear more self-confident, secure children, it is because the self-aware "I" of each infant is carved out of warmth and love. Similarly, if unhappy, depressed or ambivalent mothers bear a higher rate of neurotic children, it is because their offsprings' egos were molded in moments of dread and anguish. Not surprisingly, without redirection, such children often grow into suspicious, anxious and emotionally fragile adults. -- p.66

The second most important prenatal influence is the father's attitude toward the pregnancy and his commitment to the relationship with the mother. One investigator has estimated from his studies that women trapped in a stormy marriage run "a 237% greater risk of bearing a psychologically or physically damaged child than a woman in a secure, nurturing relationship" -- putting her child at greater risk than would many physical illnesses, smoking, or very heavy manual labor.

The birth experience itself is influential: very detailed birth memories can be retrieved, and the more traumatic the birth experience, the higher the correlation with physiological and psychological problems, including serious disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis. Again, the mother's attitude has been demonstrated to be the most important factor in determining the character of the birth. The vital factors in predicting the ease and speed of labor are the mother's attitudes toward motherhood, her relations to her own mother, and the presence of habitual worries, fears, and anxieties going beyond normal apprehension. Along with these, women trapped in an unsatisfying relationship fall into the high-risk category. Many problems associated with birth trauma can be prevented or reduced by increased understanding and sensitivity on the part of health professionals and by the parents' choice of who delivers the baby and of a humane and comfortable birth method and location.

That prenatal experiences carry over after birth is beyond dispute, as case histories illustrate. In one, a man troubled with severe anxiety attacks accompanied by hot flushes was regressed by hypnosis to the prenatal period, and revealed that the underlying trauma had occurred in the seventh month of pregnancy. His mother subsequently admitted trying to abort him in the seventh month by taking hot baths. Such "lost" memories form the record of prenatal consciousness and they can influence us powerfully all our lives.

Why is it, however, that adults almost universally have no memory of these formative experiences without the aid of hypnosis, certain drugs, or various psychoanalytical techniques -- memories retrieved from the sixth, and particularly the eighth month, showing that the brain is operating near adult levels? One of the hormones which induce labor, oxytocin, has been found to wipe out memory. Animals given oxytocin, for instance, were unable to remember tasks they had been trained to perform perfectly before. During labor the child's system is flooded with this chemical which acts as a hormonal waters of Lethe. Another maternal hormone, ACTH (adrenocorticotropin hormone), which regulates the flow of stress hormones, has the opposite effect, helping to retain memory. Thus, each time the mother becomes frightened or stressed, "large amounts of the hormone flood into the child's system, helping him to retain a clear, vivid mental picture of her upset and its effect on him" (p. 187). State-dependent learning -- events experienced along with specific physical and emotional arousal which can be recalled if those same emotions or physical circumstances recur -- is also involved in the retrieval of prenatal memories.

Interestingly, psychiatrists who regularly regress patients to birth and prebirth often report on experiences that appear to go as far back as conception. Dr. Verny hypothesizes another, intuitive form of memory which can be stored on a cellular level, allowing even an ovum or sperm to record and retain memories. He says:

Evidence for some sort of an extraneurological memory system is growing. The fact that we possess such a faculty is further supported by well-documented cases of near-death experiences . . . where people who have been declared dead by their doctors return to life and report on every detail of what transpired in the room . . . things they could not have seen even if their eyes had been open -- which they were not.
. . . what I am postulating are two separate but complementary systems serving our memory faculties. One depends for its functioning on the establishment of the mature neurological networks that comprise the CNS-ANS [central nervous system -- autonomic nervous system] and is operative by the sixth month after conception. . . . The other is a paraneurological system. We are not as yet cognizant of the laws governing this system.
It seems to me that the sympathetic modality predominates at the beginning of one's life and then gradually diminishes. At times of great stress, such as for example danger to a loved one or imminent death, it reappears. It may also manifest itself in altered states of consciousness induced by, for example, hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis or psychotherapy. -- pp. 191-2

Could it be that the unborn child's memory inheres in the nonphysical but very real aspects of its consciousness which, with increasing contact with the physical body, can no longer be accessed under normal conditions; and at death, when the physical body is dropped, this nonphysical repository of consciousness can be accessed again? According to the theosophical philosophy, the permanent storage of our memories as a human stream of consciousness resides in the spiritual portion of ourself, remaining from life to life even though the physical memory is lost with the destruction of the brain.

Certainly the psychological and spiritual atmosphere provided by both parents, but particularly by the mother, has a profound impact on the development of the child both before and after birth. The bonding process that begins prenatally is vital here:

Nature has gone to great lengths to design a bonding system that fits the newborn's needs in very precise ways. She not only dramatically alters the behavior of an adult woman . . . (an alteration, by the way, Freud insisted was impossible), she alters it in exactly the ways and for the length of time that suits the baby best. To thrive emotionally, intellectually and physically an infant needs the special kind of loving contact and care that only bonding fully develops in his mother. -- p. 151

The bonding between father and child also begins prenatally. When a man had spoken to his child before birth using short, soothing words, the child one or two hours old picked out and responded to his voice. With both parents, attention to the child is critical in the first four years of life. "Next to genetic inheritance, in fact, quality of parenting is the single most important factor in shaping the depth and breadth of intellect" (p. 169). Empathy with the child and ability to see things from his perspective are key factors to parents' success in stimulating and interacting with their children. There is a marked correlation between rejecting or stressed mothers and traumatic births on the one hand, and later psychological problems and even violent criminal activity on the other. A more active, supportive attitude toward unborn children would have a positive impact on society as a whole by preventing or mitigating destructive personality tendencies, and by giving children a start which meets their needs as human beings, not just as higher animals.

Parenthood, then, from its earliest stages is an inner as well as a physical responsibility. Although the influence of physical substances such as drugs (including alcohol and tobacco), viruses, and nutrients on the well-being of the unborn is generally recognized, we are only beginning to realize the parents' tremendous impact along psychological and spiritual lines. Dr. Verny points out several practical applications of this knowledge, such as providing psychological screening to locate emotionally high-risk mothers, so that counseling could be offered to them and steps taken to enhance the psychological and physical development of the child; and also increasing use of more humane, gentle birth practices on the part of medical professionals. His most insistent message, however, is that each individual parent can help by striving to provide a positive, loving psychological environment for the unborn child and infant.

Widespread recognition of the delicate and intimate connections between parent and child prenatally and in infancy will lead naturally to a more realistic idea of the far-reaching responsibility of parenthood, and new respect for the impact of our inner life on those around us.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

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