There is this brilliant book I pick up from time to time and read with great interest (Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional Sociocultural and Brain Development, by Graham Music). I was going to read about mirror neurons and got sidetracked by this section on recently improved understandings of the foetal ‘experience’. Music explains:
“With the advent of ultrasound technology we have gained a window on the previously private lives of foetuses. Ultrasound films have shown foetuses yawn, get comfortable by moving about, grimace with pain, undergo rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and male foetuses having erections. By 12 weeks a foetus will grasp when its palm is stroked, will suck when its lips are stimulated, and squint when its eyelids are touched.
Scans and careful observations of twins have allowed observers to witness what looks like personalities forming in utero. For example, one might see a twin kick [-p.16] another, and the other flinch and move away, or in some pairs the other twin will instead retaliate and push back. There have been several examples of such twins showing similar personality traits well into postnatal life, with for example a seemingly more placid and conciliatory twin in utero showing similar behaviour with their more aggressive twin in later childhood. Best known for such research is the psychoanalyst Allessandra Piontelli (1992) in Italy, who adapted a method of detailed infant observation originally developed at the Tavistock Clinic in London in the 1940s by Esther Bick. Piontelli observed foetuses through ultrasound equipment rather than infants in the flesh. She found that the intrauterine environment is quite different for each twin in a pair, one often claiming more space and resources, and seeming to grow almost at the other’s expense. This might cast doubt on studies that suggest that twins have identical environments before birth. She found that some twins recoiled from contact, others barely noticed it and still others actively sought it out. She documents one set of affectionate twins who stroked each other’s head through a membrane, and after birth they were seen stroking each other in a similar fashion using a curtain as the membrane. Such accounts may seem more anecdotal and open to interpretation but they raise important questions and suggest that at least some aspects of personality are developing in the womb. Another example was of twins who were violent in the womb, seeming to hit out and punch each other, interaction patterns that persevered as they grew older. As ever, nature and nurture, physiology and psychology, are hard to disentangle. It is possible that in such cases a mother’s emotional states, such as of stress and anger, might have physiological effects on the developing foetuses via the accompanying release of hormones that cross the placenta.
Piontelli’s work asks questions about memories seemingly developed before birth. She even suggests in one example that the behaviour of an 18-month-old was linked to the death of his twin 2 weeks before birth. This infant seemed to forever be looking for something he had lost, shaking objects in the room as if bringing them to life, and becoming anxious whenever he made a developmental leap. This interesting, but speculative, clinical example might not count as scientific ‘evidence’ of personality development influenced by prenatal life. However Piontelli’s work, with clear video footage of prenatal life, certainly provides observational confirmation of the kinds of interactive capacities one sees in the foetus, and suggests a degree of continuity between pre- and postnatal life.” (pp.15-16)
Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Graham Music (2011) Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional Sociocultural and Brain Development. Hove: New York, Psychology Press.