From the book "THE  BRAIN'S  WAY  OF  HEALING"  by  Dr. Norman Doidge


A Bridge of Sound

The mothers voice plays a special role in the treatment of premature children—it is one of the strangest aspects of Paul's technique, but it seemed even stranger when Tomatis first developed it. It is now established that a fetus can recognize its mother's voice, but when Tomatis first proclaimed that the maturing fetus—curled up in the womb, oddly enough, in the shape of an ear—could hear sounds and recognize the mother's voice, medical schools were teaching that fetuses, and even newborns, were not capable of awareness. The argument—routinely made as recently as the 1980s—was that the infant's nervous system was not sufficiently complete. The unborn child was a witless tadpole.

In the early 1980s, scientists (and especially the Toronto psychiatrist Thomas Verny) gathered studies proving that the fetus has experiences in the womb. Until then, only some mothers (who believed it made sense to sing to their fetuses) and a few psychoanalysts (including D. W. Winnicott) argued that the unborn child perceived and had feelings. Freud and Otto Rank, who believed that birth could be traumatic, agreed with these ideas. Tomatis read about the unborn child's alertness in the work of the neonatal neurologist Andre Thomas, who demonstrated that newborns, surrounded by conversing adults, turn only to their mother's voice. Tomatis wrote that this action must indicate recognition of "the only voice of which he or she was aware while still in the fetal stage."

"My own experience as a premature baby often stirred up and guided my libido science or desire to know, wrote Tomatis. In the 1950s, eager to better understand the origins of listening, he wondered what it would be like for an infant to hear the mother's voice in utero— from within her body. To find out, he built an artificial womb and filled it with fluid, designed to replicate the sounds of the intrauterine environment. He equipped the "womb" with waterproof microphones, and from inside it he played sound recordings from the bellies of pregnant women. As he listened, he heard deeply soothing sounds: from the intestines, the brook-like gurgling of fluids; the rhythm of the mother's breathing, ebbing and flowing like the surf; her heartbeat; and in the distant background, the faint sounds of her voice. He saw premature birth as emotional trauma that the infant experienced, in part, because of the sudden loss of all these sounds. He suggested that the mother's voice be piped into incubators to soothe premature infants, a practice that was taken up in parts of Europe. And to help people who had had auditory problems since infancy, he began to use the mother's voice in the Electronic Ear, filtered so it sounded as it did in the womb.

By 1964, scientists had demonstrated that the eardrum and the inner bones of the ear are already adult size halfway through pregnancy; that the acoustic nerve is mature by then and can conduct signals; and that the temporal lobe, which processes sound, is also largely functioning. Eventually 3-D ultrasounds and methods of monitoring the fetal heart and brain waves showed that fetuses respond to voices. Recent studies confirm that the fetus can differentiate its mother's voice from other voices. Barbara Kisilevsky and her colleagues, working with sixty pregnant mothers (on average 38.2 weeks pregnant), played a recording of each mother's voice, ten centimeters above her abdomen; they found that the heart rate of the fetus increased, but not when they played strangers' voices. Recent studies have replicated Andre Thomas's findings that newborns prefer their mother's voice to that of strangers and prefer stories that were read to them by their mothers in the last six weeks of pregnancy to new stories. Immediately after birth, newborns can distinguish the "mother tongue"—the language the mother spoke while they were in the womb—from another language, and newborns have neural networks sensitive to native speech before birth.

Tomatis believed that all unborn children, during the four and a half months that their ears are functioning within the womb, grow "attached" to the sole voice they hear murmuring a language they do not understand. Some argued, "But isn't the contact between child and mother primarily a physical one?" to which he answered, "Language, too, possesses a physical dimension. By causing vibrations in the surrounding air, language becomes a sort of invisible arm by which we Touch' the person listening to us in every sense of the term."

Paul puts it this way: "We don't relate to people directly; we relate through our voice. It is a medium. The brain is a tool user, and the voice is a tool." The unborn child in the womb hears many lower-frequency sounds (like the heartbeat and breathing), and then the mother's voice, which has low but also higher frequencies of speech, occasionally breaks through.

Paul continues, "We can imagine the unborn child making a first attempt to connect' with the more agreeable sound of the voice of her mother. But unlike a radio, the voice is not always 'on' and the fetus cannot control it. She has to wait until it comes on to enjoy it. Thus the first motivation to reach out is born. This is followed by the first gratification— the pleasure of hearing this sound again. This initial silent 'dialogue' gives birth to listening. Many mothers sense and respond to their unborn child's silent quest for dialogue. They sing the same songs over and over again The unborn child does not understand the meaning of the messages sent by the mother's voice. What he 'understands' is the emotional charge of those messages."


A few decades or so ago I saw this interview on TV. A young lady was playing in an orchestra. The music they were practicing for the first time, seemed very familiar to her, though she had never heard it before. She was so stirred by this uncanny and strange idea that she somehow knew this music, though never seeing it before, she called her mother to tell her about this odd idea of somehow knowing this music. The mother asked her what the music was called. On hearing the orchestral name of the music, the mother smiled and said, "When I was carry you in my pregnancy, that was the music we were practicing in the orchestra I was in at that time."  

The unborn child is a living person, only living in a different realm of life, where air to breath into the lungs is not the function of that life to sustain that life, but personal life it still is.