Origins: How the Nine Months before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives
by Annie Murphy Paul. Free Press, 2010

Does your birth month have an impact on your mental health? The startling answer seems to be yes. “Schizophrenics are about 10 percent more likely than the rest of the population to have been born in late winter and early spring,” says journalist Annie Murphy Paul in Origins: How the Nine Months before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. The reason for that could be that mothers are more likely to catch a viral infection during that time of the year.

Origins provides a journey through the burgeoning field of fetal origins. Paul explores the extent to which a mother’s experience influences the fetus’s physical and mental development.

Contrary to prevailing notions, the placenta is not an insulating capsule that completely protects the fetus from the outside world. Paul describes the womb as a mailbox that constantly accepts “biological postcards from the world outside.” The food a mother eats and the emotions she feels during pregnancy send important signals to the fetus that become “part of its flesh and blood.”

Studies revealed, for example, that pregnant women who experienced the trauma of the 9/11 attacks tended to have children who were more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have also shown that mice that consumed green tea during pregnancy gave birth to offspring that were much less likely to develop cancer, even after being exposed to a known carcinogen.

Paul wrote Origins while going through her second pregnancy and knit many of her own experiences and insights into the narrative, grappling with questions such as what she should eat and what activities she should avoid. That highly personal touch makes the book a captivating read, even or maybe especially for those of us who have never experienced pregnancy.

Editor's note: This is a Web exclusive book review from
Scientific American MIND.