Carmen Bank found her 1985 pregnancy rather boring. So, to pass the time, she started doing something she would never have dreamed of: watching a soap opera.
Unexpectedly, she found herself hooked. And so she spent almost every morning in front of her television set, ready for the familiar theme of "Ryan's Hope." After Melissa was born that October, Bank bought a videocassette recorder so she could tape the show when she was too busy to watch.
Bank isn't sure when she discovered the behavior, but, shortly after Melissa was born, Bank realized that the baby seemed to recognize the "Ryan's Hope" theme and would stop fussing when the program began.
"She'd just sit there and watch the whole introduction and then she would start imitating what they do on the show," Bank said. "This has been going on forever."
While this could appear to be one baby's quirky behavior, an Irish medical researcher would argue otherwise.
Working with the babies of women who regularly watch a British soap, the researcher identified a pattern of fetal learning behavior so striking he calls it "fetal 'soap' addiction."
The British medical journal Lancet published a description of the phenomenon two weeks ago, in the form of a letter to the editor from researcher Peter Hepper of the Laboratory for Recognition Research at Queen's University of Belfast.
A Reaction to Music
Fetal soap addiction, Hepper explained, consists of behavior after birth indicating that a newborn has become familiar with a soap opera theme while still in the uterus. The behavior includes a baby's clear response to the first bars of the tune by focusing rapt attention on the television screen. A crying baby who absorbed the soap theme in the uterus is likely to stop crying when the program begins while the baby of a non-watcher will keep wailing.
Hepper drew these conclusions from a study of the newborns of seven women who reguarly watched "Neighbors." Some of the women watched twice daily--at the normal time and then again in repeats during the evening. Their babies were evaluated four or five days after birth. Reactions from infants of a control group of eight mothers who didn't watch the soap were gauged for comparison.
"The results indicate that the reaction of a newborn baby to 'watching' television may reflect long-term exposure to the theme tune of the program during pregnancy," Hepper wrote in the medical journal. "This attention exhibited by the newborn may be a result of prenatal learning."
There is obviously more to this than the soaps, Hepper said in a telephone interview from Belfast. In fact, the soap opera addiction phenomenon fits into a larger picture of fetal learning research in which at least one previous study established that newborns come from the womb already able to recognize their mothers' voices.
The implication, he said, is that fetuses can be influenced and learn to recognize sounds they hear often. Their mothers' voices are one constant auditory stimulus. Soap operas can be another.
"This is just one of the parts of it," he said. "If we look into the future, it may be possible to enrich the fetal environment, but because we're only starting out, we're not sure what this can do. We know the fetus can learn, but it was quite a surprise that it would learn just naturally, through exposure to the music."
But to William Fifer, a psychologist at New York's Columbia University and the author of a pioneer 1980 study of maternal voice recognition, this reasoning goes a little too far, a lot too fast.
Fifer said some entrepreneurs have established fetal learning centers since his initial study appeared in the journal Science. All of this, he said, goes significantly beyond any evidence of effectiveness--theoretical or actual.
"My immediate response is that the data aren't there that would convince me that this, indeed, is a powerful effect," Fifer said. "However, it certainly would fit with the overall notion that the fetus will retain some memory of a frequently repeated auditory event.
"We have so much more to study about what it is and what goes into the womb, I don't think that (evaluating babies' retention of soap operas) would be my first choice of how to test it.
"People tend to take these results and go 10 miles farther than they should in this area. It's been overstated. What we know to date is that the fetus, indeed, can hear. It, in fact, is listening to a variety of sounds and the mother's voice is pretty potent in that."
Additional Studies Needed
So far, most attempts to determine what the fetus knows and when it knows it have been confined to animal studies. Researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, for instance, have been working to explore fetal learning in the rat for several years.
A great deal of serious additional study will be required, Fifer said, to understand how the fetus comes to recognize auditory stimuli--much less what that may imply for enhancing learning or anything approximating school before birth.
Hepper is undeterred. "Theoretically," he said, "it may be possible to produce musicians by playing music to the womb."