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Dr. Minna Huotilainen, University of Helsinki – Lullabies and Fetal Memories


In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Minna Huotilainen of the University of Helsinki explains why it may never be too early to introduce a baby to music.

Minna Huotilainen is a researcher in psychology and cognitive science in the Cognitive Brain Research Unit at the University of Helsinki. Her research interests include the development of human cognition, auditory processing and memory functions, and developmental disorders.

About Dr. Huotilainen

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Dr. Minna Huotilainen – Lullabies and Fetal Memories

The human auditory system is functional already during the fetal period from the mid-pregnancy onwards. There is evidence of fetal auditory learning already from the 80's. Researchers found that babies behaviour changed when they heard something that was familiar from the fetal period.

We were interested in the brain functions that are related to fetal auditory learning. The neonatal brain is very immature especially in cortical regions. Still, brain responses from the neonates show very fast learning. For example, we have found that the neonatal brain is capable of statistical learning of speech. This means that while the baby is asleep, the brain pays attention to co-occurencies of syllables and tries to form words.

In our recent study, we asked Finnish pregnant women to listen to a tape starting at week 29 of their pregnancy, and to keep listening to it almost every day until the baby was born. After that, we recorded the newborn baby's electric brain responses to the music and speech that he had heard from the tape. We found that their brains reacted strongly to the speech and music that was familiar, and when we made changes to it, the brain responses were even stronger and faster, compared to a group of infants who had not heard the tape.

It is important to think about the consequences of this finding. We need to study whether the learning during the fetal period is only beneficial, or if it could have detrimental effects. For example, some prematurely-born infants spend months in the hospital sound environment, and many fetuses are exposed to the sounds of their mother's work. We are now studying the effects of this type of learning, and we are trying to find out if it has any negative effects on the future development of the speech understanding capabilities of the infant.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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