Early music

Sean Coughlan

Equinox: brave new babies, Channel 4, Sunday, November 20, 7.00-8.00pm. Neighbours fans are born, not made. This is one of the few claims that passes undisputed in Equinox's intriguing look at pre-birth education, which asks whether playing sounds to foetuses can increase intelligence later in life.

In an experiment designed to test babies' familiarity with sounds heard when they are in m the womb, Professor Peter Hepper of Queen's University, Belfast, exposed pregnant women to television theme tunes, including Neighbours. After birth, the babies were played a range of sounds and music, and the professor found that greatest comfort appeared to be drawn from theme tunes played before birth. Apart from showing that foetuses can hear us loud and clear, the professor is steadfastly reluctant to draw larger conclusions.

Such reticence is in marked contrast to Dr Brent Logan, who from his base in Oregon predicts "that a watershed moment in human history has arrived". The watershed in question is the emergence of a generation whose development will be accelerated by pre-birth education. Already he claims to have found success with thousands of children whom he has intellectually stimulated while still in the womb.

The stimulation comes in the form of a machine, sold by Brent Logan, that makes heartbeat-type sounds to exercise the listening and learning skills of the foetus. Testimonies of its success are given by a series of proud American parents who have followed his methods and who now, noisomely attest to the genius of their young children.

But Peter Hepper remains unimpressed. Questioning the existence of any objective evidence for the success of "foetal stimulation", he points to the difficulty of isolating any single reason for the claimed acceleration in learning, particularly when the subjects are the children of highly-motivated parents who offer all kinds of other educational advantages.

What becomes apparent from both sides of the argument is how little is really certain about human consciousness before birth. At which point does a foetus "hear" autonomously from its mother and at what point does an awareness of sound become an awareness of self?

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