Newborns are hardly blank slates devoid of knowledge and experience, contrary to historical notions about the infant mind. Sensory awareness and learning start in the womb, as the recently reinvigorated study of fetal perception has made clearer than ever. In the past few years lifelike images and videos created by 3-D and 4-D ultrasound have divulged much more about physiology and behavior than the blurry 2-D silhouettes of typical ultrasound. And noninvasive devices can now measure electrical activity in the developing brain of a fetus or newborn. Recent insights gleaned from such tools provide a rich portrait of how a fetus uses its budding brain and senses to learn about itself and the outside world well before birth. Such research has improved care for preterm babies, suggesting the benefits of dim lights, familiar and quiet voices, and lots of comforting skin contact between mother and child.
This article was originally published with the title "First Impressions" in Scientific American 313, 1, 24 (July 2015)