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News & Views

Memory and Emotion

Did you know that a child can be born with memories of, say, a grandparent they never knew? Someone, perhaps, who died even before the child was conceived?

I was helping a PhD student a number of years ago. She was studying pregnant Mums’ emotional responses. And how they might affect their unborn babies.

She explained it this way: Memory is stored in proteins.

Those same proteins can cross the placenta.

So it is possible, she explained, for a child to be born remembering events they could not possibly have experienced.

I found that unbelievably spooky. Although, you have to admit, it does make sense.

Now, many Mums have played music to their unborn babies. It’s well known that the foetus hears these sounds while in the uterus. And it is able to recognise them – indeed be calmed by the same sounds – after birth. Many Mums use this knowledge deliberately – often sitting with headphones hugging their pregnant tummies. I’ve heard it said that at the height of ‘Neighbours’ popularity, a raft of babies was born who readily recognised and responded to the theme music.

What this student was studying, however, went way beyond that (at this point I go all layman and probably let her down with my explanation).

She set out to prove that a Mum’s emotional reactions create chemical responses in her. Those chemicals cross the placenta. Mum’s emotions, therefore, have an effect on her unborn infant. Without the infant being exposed to the original stimulus at all.

My role in all of this was negligible, really. I was charged with assembling a reel of ads. Each ad had to have the capacity to elicit an intense emotional response. Sheer, unadulterated joy. Deep sadness. Great fear. And so forth.

Mums viewed the ads wearing headphones. This time so the unborn child couldn’t possibly hear the audio.

The PhD candidate was able to measure the foetal response through changes in heartbeat etc.

Mum’s psychological reaction produced chemicals. Which crossed the placenta. And caused a reaction in the unborn child.

A remote control emotional response, if you like.

That goes way beyond spooky. In fact, as a parent myself, it makes me question what I may have done – unknowingly – to my kids.

So whenever I hear people questioning whether humans respond emotionally or rationally; when I listen in focus groups to folk pretending all their decisions are well thought through and perfectly logical/rational, I want to laugh out loud.

Not only are they driven almost entirely by their emotions, as adults.

They always have been.

Way back before they first drew breath on their own.


Knowing that, how do you feel?

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