Psychology Dictionary of Arguments

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Prenatal Learning/Developmental Psychology/Upton: there is some suggestion that cognitive development (…) begins before birth. The evidence to support such early cognitive ability comes from evidence of prenatal learning, which is linked to infant auditory perception. Hearing develops at around the sixth month prenatally and it has been well established that the foetus can perceive and respond to sounds, such as speech and music.
The recognition of, and preference for, their mothers’ voices shown by neonates is thought to be a learned response based on prenatal experience. (DeCasper, A. and Spence, M (1986)(1).
Research studies have also shown that neonates can recognise either music or prose they have been exposed to prenatally, suggesting the development of cognitive skills such as memory before birth.
Hormonal levels have been found to influence later cognitive skills, including sex differences. Increased levels of testosterone are thought to result in more rapid growth of neurons in the foetal brain and have been linked to enhanced spatial skills.
Upton I 37
DeCasper/Spence/Upton: Because the researchers(1) used both mothers and unfamiliar adults to read out the test story, they concluded that the infants were responding to the story itself, not simply the sound of their own mother’s voice reading the story. The study therefore provides good evidence for prenatal learning.
Upton: Problems: However, it is important not to over-interpret when evaluating the results from such experiments. Remember that, just because infants show a response to something, or demonstrate that they can discriminate between two things, this does not mean that they perceive them in the same way that adults or older children do. Infants may be able to differentiate between two words, but this does not mean that they know anything about what each word means. The recognition of the prenatal story demonstrated here does not suggest that the infants have learned the meanings of words, but that they have learned about patterns of speech and language – what linguists call ‘acoustic cues’. This skill is the precursor to developing an understanding of what words mean, and the ability to recognise and remember speech sounds, and to segment words from the speech stream – in other words, to identify where words begin and end from the flow of sounds people make when they speak. Cf. Moon and Fifer, 2000(2).
Upton I 38
Language: There is evidence, for example, that newborn infants have already learned to identify their native language. They can also recognise different speech patterns within that language; for example, they can differentiate ‘happy talk’ from other patterns of speech (Mastropieri and Turkewitz, 1999)(3).


1. DeCasper, A.J. and Spence, M.J. (1986) Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development, 9: 133–50.
2 .Moon, C. and Fifer, W.P. (2000) Evidence of transnatal auditory learning. Journal of Perinatology, 20: S37—S44.
3. Mastropieri, D. and Turkewitz, G. (1999) Prenatal experience and neonatal responsiveness to vocal expressions of emotion. Developmental Psychobiology, 35(3): 204—14.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Developmental Psychology
Upton I
Penney Upton
Developmental Psychology 2011


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