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Why can't I remember my own birth?

Asked by Jon Bovard of London, United Kingdom

The subject of birth memory is very controversial among human development scientists. Some authorities argue that people can remember their own birth, the first year after birth, and even pre-birth memories. This is accomplished usually by "rebirthing", use of a "primal" therapist, a dianetics "auditor", hypnosis, dream analysis, deep meditation, or one or two other tools.

Canadian conductor Boris Brott once discovered he could play certain pieces sight unseen. In conducting a score for the first time, the cello parts would sometimes "jump out at him". He knew how they went before turning the page of music. He later traced this to the fact that his mother, a professional cellist, had practiced these same pieces over and over during her pregnancy.

Yet other authorities argue that people cannot remember their own birth. They claim that the human brain is too underdeveloped for memory so early. They also contend that such sensory data, even if taken in, are quickly lost as memories due to the fact that the fetus and newborn have no words to "hang onto" them.

However, there are problems explaining lost memories of sounds, smells, tastes, and other sensations that may be less reliant upon words. Of the many fascinating studies on this topic, one provides evidence that a baby can indeed possess some memory that involves words before birth.

Psychologists Anthony De Casper and Melanie Spence of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro conducted a very simple experiment. They asked a group of pregnant women to read aloud The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss twice a day during the last six weeks of their pregnancy.

A few days after birth, the babies were then given the opportunity to hear recordings of two stories. One was the familiar Dr Seuss story. The other was another Dr Seuss story they had never heard before. Outfitted with earphones and a special nipple that let them switch the story heard by sucking faster or slower, 10 out of 12 newborns changed their speed of sucking to arrive at the familiar story, thus rejecting the new story.

This suggests that the babies could hear, differentiate between, and remember stories. They also preferred the familiar one to the unfamiliar one. They didn't exactly "vote with their feet". They voted with their mouths.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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