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What Is the Human Mind Like Before Birth?

Researchers stress that the unborn child’s brain is in a rapid, ongoing, and little understood state of development

Some have addressed the question of the prenatal mind by trying to determine when various parts of the brain develop. The difficulty with that, as neuroscientist Mark Solms and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor have noted, is that it’s not clear that there is a “seat” of consciousness in the brain. If it is a human brain at all, it is developing human consciousness, in the same way that a kitten brain is developing cat consciousness. At any rate, human consciousness is a “Hard Problem with no special location in the brain.

Unborn babies, like very young born ones, spend most of their time asleep, as neuroscientist Christof Koch has pointed out:

Invasive experiments in rat and lamb pups and observational studies using ultrasound and electrical recordings in humans show that the third-trimester fetus is almost always in one of two sleep states. Called active and quiet sleep, these states can be distinguished using electroencephalography. Their different EEG signatures go hand in hand with distinct behaviors: breathing, swallowing, licking, and moving the eyes but no large-scale body movements in active sleep; no breathing, no eye movements and tonic muscle activity in quiet sleep. These stages correspond to rapid-eye-movement (REM) and slow-wave sleep common to all mammals. In late gestation the fetus is in one of these two sleep states 95 percent of the time, separated by brief transitions.

Christof Koch, “When Does Consciousness Arise in Human Babies?” at Scientific American (September 1, 2009)
In-vitro image of a human fetus

Dr. Koch thinks it’s just as well they do spend most of their time asleep while their brains mature. That’s because birth is the biggest trauma most of us will experience in our lifetimes:

The fetus is forced from its paradisic existence in the protected, aqueous and warm womb into a hostile, aerial and cold world that assaults its senses with utterly foreign sounds, smells and sights, a highly stressful event.

As Hugo Lagercrantz, a pediatrician at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, discovered two decades ago, a massive surge of norepinephrine—more powerful than during any skydive or exposed climb the fetus may undertake in its adult life—as well as the release from anesthesia and sedation that occurs when the fetus disconnects from the maternal placenta, arouses the baby so that it can deal with its new circumstances.

Christof Koch, “When Does Consciousness Arise in Human Babies?” at Scientific American (September 1, 2009)

The newly born child still sleeps as much of the time as possible. But a new element has entered the picture: discomfort. Hunger, diaper rash, maybe even needles… Squalling is said to be good for the lungs; what’s certain is that the child now has plenty of opportunities to practice. Perhaps the journey from bliss to discomfort is an essential stage in the slow unfolding of consciousness.

But the unborn child is not always asleep:

● The unborn baby prefers sucking his right or left thumb.

By studying ultrasounds, scientists have determined that 85% of unborn babies prefer moving their right hand over their left hand. About 85% of adults prefer their right hand, too.

If a twin, the unborn baby moves more gently when reaching toward her twin’s face. The baby responds to taste.

● Flavors from the mother’s food seep into the amniotic fluid, peaking after about 45 minutes.

If the amniotic fluid tastes sweet because of an injection of saccharin, the baby swallows more fluid. If the amniotic fluid tastes bitter, the baby swallows less.

Think About This, “12 Facts About a 15-Week-Old Unborn Baby You May Not Know” at HillFaith (December 1, 2021)

The exact origin of the dominance of the right hand in most humans is unknown. At least forty genes are involved but the hand preference is thought to be reinforced prenatally by the child’s use of the right (or left) hand. The preference for sweet tastes is, of course, adaptive because breast milk, due to its components, tastes fairly sweet. We can assume that the child is reacting to pleasure or pain as a newborn would.

● The baby’s body responds to both touch and pain.

The baby responds to light touches over most of the body.

If something touches the palm of the baby’s hand, the baby will bend his or her fingers as if to grasp the object.

Neurotransmitters specific to pain processing appear between 10 and 14 weeks’ gestation. The spinal nerves needed to transmit pain to the thalamus have formed by 15 weeks’ gestation.

Think About This, “12 Facts About a 15-Week-Old Unborn Baby You May Not Know” at HillFaith (December 1, 2021)

Grasping strengthens the fingers, which the baby will need more and more as time goes on. Learning to detect touch and respond to pain is part of mental development. So throughout this period, we can say that the lights are on at least some hours of the day in the child’s brain and learning is beginning.

Researchers stress that the unborn child’s brain is in a rapid, ongoing, and little understood state of development:

Over the course of pregnancy, the structure of the brain will change as it grows and begins to form the characteristic folds that designate distinct brain regions. “We don’t know a lot about what happens in fetal life, because we haven’t had the tools to measure brain development in fetal life,” says Robert Wright, an environmental epidemiologist and pediatrician at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. The developing brain relies on environmental and endogenous stimuli such as these to help it determine which connections should be pruned and which should not. “When a neuron fires after a proper signal, its synaptic connections are solidified,” Wright explains. “If a neuron’s synaptic connection is rarely fired, it regresses and is removed.”

Newsroom, ““The Brain Before Birth – Using fMRI to Explore the Secrets of Fetal Neurodevelopment”” at Mount Sinai Hospital (November 20, 2018)

So what we do know is that the environment in which we live when we are in utero helps shape our brains. That’s certainly an argument for making pregnancy a safe and comforting place for both mother and baby.

You may also wish to read: Do babies really feel pain before they are self-aware? Michael Egnor discusses the fact that the thalamus, deep in the brain, creates pain. The cortex moderates it. Thus, juveniles may suffer more. Jonathan Wells recalls, from when he was a lab technologist, how very premature infants would scream when he took a drop of blood for tests.

Abortion advocate admits in a medical journal that unborn children feel pain. The scientific community has for decades misrepresented the straightforward science of conception and fetal development for ideological reasons. I have cared for hundreds of premature infants and it is very clear that these very young children experience pain intensely. An innocuous needlestick in the heel to draw small amount of blood would ordinarily not be particularly painful for an adult. But a tiny infant will scream at such discomfort. (Michael Egnor)

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

What Is the Human Mind Like Before Birth?