Sunday 16 August 2009

What's going on in the brain of a baby?

In the past, people used to think that when babies were born, their minds were totally blank. That isn’t so at all. I fact, even before a baby is born, the baby’s mind is functioning to some degree.

In the early 1950s, I served in the Canadian Navy and it became known that I was hypnotizing some of my fellow sailors. When the medical doctors at the naval base in Esquimalt, British Columbia were satisfied that no harm was coming about as a result me hypnotizing the sailors, they permitted me to continue. I suppose the reason for this was two-fold. I hypnotized one of the doctors and a rating from Newfoundland had to have all of his teeth removed but he couldn’t be given any form of anesthetic otherwise he would die. They wanted me to give the young man a post-hypnotic suggestion so that when he sat in the dentist’s chair, he would immediately fall asleep and would remain that way until his remaining teeth were removed. The removal of his teeth was successful without him feeling any pain during or after the operation.

Now I will tell you of two events in which I was able to regress the minds of two people to a period of time many years earlier. Both hypnotic events occurred in the 1950s.

The first one occurred at the naval base in Esquimalt. A friend of mine, who had learned via the grapevine that I had been practicing hypnosis and getting some of my fellow sailors to remember events in their lives as small children, approached me with a problem.
He said that he hated his mother but he didn’t know why. According to him she had always expressed her love for him. He figured that something happened to him when he was a very small child that perhaps had triggered those feelings of hatred for his mother and he wanted me to find out what it was. He agreed to let me hypnotize him and regress him back to his childhood; to a period of time that he had completely forgotten about.

Memories are strange things. Our memory is our brain’s mental ability to store, retain and recall information. The storage in sensory memory and short-term memory generally have a strictly limited capacity and duration, which means that information is available for a certain period of time, but is not retained indefinitely. An example of this is when you have a boring dream and wake-up remembering the dream but within minutes, it somehow vanishes and is never retrieved again. By contrast, long-term memory can store much larger quantities of information for potentially unlimited duration, sometimes a whole lifetime.

Our memories are stored in our brains but they only come to the surface (so to speak) when a certain word, sentence, face, sound, smell, taste or event or anything else is suddenly thrust upon our conscious mind. For example, you may forget the face of an old friend you haven’t seen for many, many years but when he shows up at a party, your brain begins to search back into your memories of him and suddenly you remember who he is. The memory of him was part of your long-term memory and even when you remember something of your relationship, you couldn’t find the image of his face in your memory banks. It is only when you see him many years later that your mind finds the actually memory bank the image of his face is stored in so that remembering his face comes to the fore.

To understand how this works, let me explain something about the human brain. One of the most fascinating movies ever produced was called, Fantastic Voyage. It was shown in theatres in 1966. The plot was as follows. A diplomat is nearly assassinated. In order to save him, a submarine is shrunken to microscopic size and injected into his blood stream with a small crew. They are instructed to go to his brain and correct a problem that resulted after he was shot in the head. It was while I was watching that movie that I learned that the brain, although appears as if it is a solid mass, it is really billions upon billions of cells connected with one another with dendrites.

Every nerve cell (called neurons) is a tiny information-processing centre with thousands of connections (called dendrites that look like the branches of a tree) running in and out of them upon which the neuron receives and sends signals to other neurons in the brain. There are so many of these dendrites in the human brain, the only word that best describes the number is ‘quadrillion’ which is a one with seventeen zeros behind it; 100,000,000,000,000,000.

The role of these short fibrous dendrites is to pick up the signals from neighboring neurons. There is a long fiber called an axon which also extends from the neuron. At the end of each axon are tiny branches, each tipped with a small swelling that acts as a terminal button. The axon serves as the transmitter that sends signals to the dendrites of the neighbouring neurons.

In the resting state of each neuron, is a slightly negative electrical charge while on the outside of the neuron, are positively charged ions. When the neuron’s dendrites pick up an impulse from a neighbouring neuron, a wave of electrical activity sweeps through the neuron. If the electrical impulse is strong enough, it will trigger a change in the axon’s thin membrane, causing the neuron to fire. This happens so quickly, the transmission only takes one thousandths of a second. It is then ready to receive another transmission.

The impulse strikes the terminal buttons at the end of the axons. The buttons contain tiny round sacs (synaptic vesicles) which then burst open, spilling chemical messengers called neurotransmitters into the narrow synapse separating the terminal button from the next cell’s dendrites. The neurotransmitters then flow across the gap and lock onto receptor sites on the receiving cell’s dendrites, thereby sparking a second electrical current. Once it has passed on the signal, the neurotransmitter is destroyed by enzymes or alternatively, recaptured and stored by the snynaptic vesicles.

All of this can also happen in the second and third trimester if not sooner.

In other words, that which we consider as short memory is soon destroyed by the enzymes and that which we intend to keep in our long memory banks is stored in the snynaptic vesicles for retrieval at a later time. I suppose one of the advantages of being able to destroy via the enzymes that which we don’t really need to keep in our memories is that we don’t clutter of the storage space. Imagine if you will, a company storing every spoken word that was recorded every day for years and years by its employees and then having to look for a specific statement made twenty years ago. Where would you begin? By recording only those statements that you know you may need in the future, you don’t have to go through a warehouse of discs looking for one statement.

Now that you have some idea as to how the human brain functions, you will appreciate the problem that was facing me when my friend asked me to search his brain for a specific event in his life, one of millions of events in his life.

Although at the time I began the search, I didn’t know as much as I do now about how the brain functions. What I did know however was that whatever it was that triggered hatred for his mother, still had to be in his brain. Obviously, it hadn’t been destroyed by enzymes and for this reason; it was stored in one of his many snynaptic vesicles within his brain.

Again, imagine if you will that in order to find that event, you have to look though a specific file folder in a specific drawer of a file cabinet that is one of millions that is buried somewhere in a ten-square mile warehouse.

Well, to start with, you search in your computer, for the word ‘mother’. That would certainly narrow down the search considerably for the file cabinets relating to his mother. Then you decide that it was an event that had to have occurred when he was a baby because anything after four years of age; would be readily retrievable to him without my help. To make a long story short, I regressed his memory back to the time of birth and still I couldn’t find anything that in my opinion; would cause him to hate his mother.

I was so intrigued at having him regress to the time of his birth. I just kept regressing him even further. Some young children report memories from before or during their birth. In the case of reported memories before birth, some have described themselves as being aware of events that occurred when they were still in the womb. Remembering all of this while still being a child would be a lot easier than trying to remember those events when they would later be as an adult. The reason for this is because a child doesn’t have as many file folders and files cabinets to prowl through as he would when he later became an adult.

Now the task would be much easier for me. The reason for this is because an unborn baby is restricted as to what it experiences while in the womb. For example, it won’t see anything because its eyes are closed but it definitely hears things, especially its mother’s voice. I realized then that that was where I should be searching. Somewhere in his memories, stored in his brain, was the voice of his mother that he heard prior to his birth. I figured that it was something that she must have said, since her voice would be picked up by his ears.

Sure enough, it was something she said. It occurred approximately one and a half months prior to his birth. A mother's voice reaches the uterus with very little distortion as the sound waves pass directly through her body. My friend began telling me what was going on back then while he was currently in his subconscious state that I had just put him in. His mother and father had got into a violent argument and during that conversation between the two of them, his mother screamed, “I don’t want your baby. I hate your baby and I hate you. I wish the baby inside of me would die.”

That was the trigger I was looking for. I didn’t want to tell my friend what I found as that would compound his problem even further. I had previously experimented with hypnosis for quite a while and discovered that I could make people forget what they had done while hypnotized. Having discovered the trigger that cause my friend to hate his mother, I realized that since his memory was already far enough back into his mind, I would put that part of his memory into a state of amnesia. By doing this, I would forever lock away that file folder so that no one, not even my friend would be able to retrieve it. I also removed the information as to what it was that he had been searching for and his memories of having hated his mother.

When I brought him back to the present and to a conscious state (I had previously been dealing with his subconscious state) he didn’t know that he had been hypnotized. The next day, we were talking about our mothers and he told me how much he loved his mother. I was quite excited. In fact, in my mind, I exclaimed, ‘IT WORKED!’

The second time, I hypnotized my mother while I was visiting her in Palm Springs California in 1954. I have always had a fear of spiders (like many people) but I had no idea of what caused that fear. When I asked my mother, she didn’t know why also but she said that she too had a fear of spiders. She was aware that I was a hypnotist and agreed to let me take her mind to the event in her life where she developed her fear of spiders. To make a long story short, it occurred when I was inside her womb. She had tripped while hiking with a friend and she fell into a large nest of spiders which then crawled all over her. She was screaming, “Get the spiders off of me!” I obviously heard her screaming those words and up until the day I hypnotized her, that event in my life was buried deep in my subconscious. As there was no one around to erase it from my memory, I still fear spiders.

An accumulating volume of research demonstrates memory in the first years of life and in the prenatal period as well but when I was experimenting in it during the 1950s, I didn’t know of anyone else who had tried it let alone be successful. There probably were people who were successful like I was but we didn’t publish our papers then so we didn’t know of each others experiments.

The documentation of learning and memory months before birth is not so surprising in this era. Some of this has been made possible by direct ultrasound observations of fetal behavior. Twins can be seen developing certain gestures and habits at twenty weeks gestational age which persist into their postnatal years. In one case, two twins, a brother and sister were seen playing cheek-to-cheek on either side of the dividing membrane. At one year of age, their favorite game was to take positions on opposite sides of a curtain, and begin to laugh and giggle as they touched each other and played through the curtain. Parents interested in prenatal communication have taught their prenates the "Kick Game." When babies kick, the parents touch the abdomen and say, "Kick, baby, kick!" When the baby kicks, they move to a different location and repeat the invitation. Babies soon oblige by kicking anywhere on cue. I wonder if telling a baby not to kick, the baby will obey his or her mother’s instructions.

Two- and three-year-olds are empathetic and altruistic. A three-year-old understands the difference between intrinsically wrong and something socially unacceptable. We used to think babies were restricted to their immediate perceptions and sensations and that they couldn't think abstractly. We understand now that very young babies do have the ability to have abstract thought.

Do not think that a newborn baby has a blank mind. The baby’s brain has been functioning for quite a while before its birth and these tiny babies possess sophisticated and inquiring minds that run experiments, crunch numbers, dream up new ways of doing things and learn to change the world. The problem facing them is that they have no way of communicating with anyone. It is not unlike living in a country where no one else speaks your language. You can think and do all kinds of things that a mature adult can do but the one thing you cannot do is tell anyone about what is on your mind because they don’t understand your language.

This is why it is important that you don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want your baby prior to or after its birth to store in its memory banks which will either come to haunt him or her or you later in its life.

We've discovered babies are taking the things they start out knowing and then they change them, and later revise them. They have little mind-shifts like scientists who start out with a theory, then change it. Babies aren't just restricted to their immediate sensations like the way we used to think. Even young children are thinking logically and rationally and changing their views as they get older.

Since an infant enters the world with more neurons than it will ever need, the brain begins life in a more or less disorganized state. The newborn’s neurons that have survived the prenatal marathon to each of the synaptic sites; are already competing with each other to reach other neurons by growing new dendrite spines. It will take years, and perhaps even a lifetime for the brain’s compliment of synapsis to form and become strengthened by repeated use.

A major task during the child’s early years is to prune this mass of potential networks of connections that are useful and automatic for life’s mental tasks so that the brain isn’t cluttered up with junk, so to speak. The brain automatically does this on its own for the most part since the child can’t possibly process all the stimuli it encounters in its lifetime. As parents, it is incumbent on us to make a variety of stimuli available to our children by monitoring what they do, see and hear and at the same time, carefully considering the choices that we want our children to have access to that is in our minds, in their best interests.

As our children’s brains mature, gradually eliminating some of the connections and maintaining others, their brains become more in tune with what is needed for them to live happy and useful lives.

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