Behind many pro-life/pro-choice debates is the question of development of the growing fetus. Can the fetus think, feel and learn? Or is it merely a conglomeration of cells waiting to come in to the outside world to do these things? While I am not taking a particular stance on the sensitive issue of abortion, I am looking further in to these questions. Many people would say that the fetus is a miniature version of a person with primitive physical, emotional and cognitive capabilities. It is thought by these same people, therefore, that the fetus has the capacity to learn. Studies have been conducted in attempts to verify this claim. Tests have been performed in the forms of exposure learning, habituation, and classical conditioning, each with their own virtues and demerits. In looking closely at two particular research attempts, I hope to show that there is some merit to the claim that the fetus can, in fact, learn.
In their study Fetal learning: a prospective randomized controlled study, James, Spencer and Stepsis" objective was "to examine whether prenatal exposure to a music stimulus alters fetal behavior and whether this continues into the newborn period" (James et al, 2002, p. 431). The researchers conducted a prospective randomized controlled study using an exposure model to determine the ability of the fetus to learn. Learning was defined in terms of the behavioral response to a musical stimulus during the fetal period, as well as whether effects of this exposure would continue in to neonatal life. Music was chosen as the stimulus as it has both vibratory and acoustic components, and it is also more comparable with the normal sound environment of the fetus and newborn. Twenty pregnant women were randomly divided in to either a "music group" or "control group," and 72 hours prior to their elective delivery the music group received a 60 minute baseline recording of fetal heart rate and activity, followed by 60 minutes of exposure to the music stimulus.