Pre-Birth Memories: Can People Remember Being in the Womb? Being Born?

May 28, 2015 Updated: June 2, 2015

The University of Virginia’s School of Medicine website describes pre-birth memories: “Some young children report memories from before or during their birth. In the case of reported memories before birth, some describe being aware of events that occurred when they were in the womb, while others talk about events from another realm or heaven.

“Occasionally, young children describe parts of their birth process that their parents say they were not told about. While current understandings of infant memory do not allow for such memories to be possible, some children describe them nonetheless.”

Though science has made some progress in understanding how we store and access memories, much about memory remains a mystery.

When it comes to purported pre-birth memories, could it be they are just imagined circumstances that fit the current needs of those who report them, as Mark L. Howe at Lakehead University’s department of psychology, believes? 

Could this be one of the many mysterious phenomena seemingly related to a consciousness that exists apart from the brain (as with children who report past-life memories and exhibit an adult-like understanding very early in life)? This would explain the lucidity with which the memories are recalled though babies are not usually credited with such lucidity due to the level of brain development. 

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Could it be some strange process at work by which a fetus absorbs the memories contained in his mother’s brain?

Baby-Mommy Brain Connection?

In a study conducted by a team at Emory University, researchers trained mice to be afraid of acetophenone, a fruity smell that’s used in cherry, jasmine, honeysuckle and almond flavorings. The mice would receive an electric shock in conjunction with the experience of the smell, creating a painful association with the smell.

Touching Heart Felt Black and White Image of Mother Hugging and Nuzzling Young Daughter Tenderly with Dark Background with Copy Space
Sometimes small children tell of remembering being in a warm, dark, cramped place. (Umkehrer/iStock)

Author of “The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion” Michael Jawer explained: “Their noses adapted accordingly, generating more of a particular kind of neuron keyed to the smell, and so did their brains, which grew an expanded recognition area for it.”

The surprising part: “The offspring of these mice, however—who had never before been exposed to the smell—also showed increased fear and startle responses to it.” 

The brains of the offspring had an increased number of the same kind of neurons increased in the brains of the parent mice. Their noses were more sensitive to this particular smell. Even the third generation was affected.

Of course, it’s one thing for a mouse to pass on a startle response to its offspring and another for a human mother to somehow pass on complex memories of events in her life to the baby in her womb. 

Remembering a Car Accident From Within the Womb?

A Reddit user shared the following pre-birth memory: “I have a vivid memory of my mother damaging her car on the way back from the grocery store. She got into a yelling spat with my father over it. When I asked my mother about it in my teenage years, she told me that I wasn’t born yet and I was still in her belly at the time. My father corroborated. [I] also have memory of day one. I was in my mother’s lap as she was wheeled out of the hospital after giving birth to me. I remember the building interior and the stained glass, the nurses’ attire, my father’s clothes, and the car they got into. Both confirmed my memory as well.”

“I was in my mother’s lap as she was wheeled out of the hospital after giving birth to me.”

Some pre-birth memories are experienced from a perspective outside the womb. The person remembers what the surroundings looked like. Some are more clearly from a perspective within the womb. For example, another Reddit user shared this experience: “Apparently, when I was little I told my mom about a memory I had of being in a warm, dark, cramped place. There was a very repetitive but somewhat soothing thumping going on in the background, and I could just barely see a dim, diffused red light in front of me. The light was webbed with slightly darker red lines that seemed to pulse in sync with the thumping.

“The memory only lasted a second or two. … I didn’t understand at the time that I was perfectly describing what it must have been like being inside if my mother. Now I don’t know how much I’m remembering versus recreating, but there was a point in my life when my first memory was prior to my birth.”

“When I was little I told my mom about a memory I had of being in a warm, dark, cramped place. There was a very repetitive but somewhat soothing thumping going on in the background.”
Illustration 3-D ultrasound of baby in mother's womb. (Valentin Arr/iStock)
Illustration 3-D ultrasound of baby in mother’s womb. (Valentin Arr/iStock)

Many such experiences are shared on the website, including the following: “My 7-year-old son, Magnus, and I were talking about snow. I told him I loved snow because my first memory is of sledding with my dad and brother when I was 2.

“I then asked Magnus what his first memory was. … Magnus described then being in a ‘dark’ place, just sitting there quietly. I asked him if he was scared and he replies, ‘no, I felt GREAT!’ Next he says he was standing in what he calls a ‘green’ house. This confused me for a day or two until I realized that the interior walls of our house were green when he was born. We’ve since repainted, but left some of the green on a built in bookcase. I showed it to him and yes, it’s ‘that’ green. I asked him what he was doing while in the green house and he says, ‘just checking it out.’ Next he says he was back in the ‘black’ and a voice in his head told him, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be on Earth soon.’ This was the point at which I realized that all this is a pre-birth memory.

“Magnus says he remembers watching himself be born, ‘standing behind the curtains, watching.’ … I asked him to tell me what he could see and he described the nurses and me and mom, but also described the doctor as a ‘she’ which she was. I don’t remember ever telling him that the [doctor] … was a female.”

Though Howe believes such memories are created by the imagination and true memories are only likely possible from the age of 18 months onward, he raised interesting questions about the nature of early memories in his paper, “Memories From the Cradle.”

“Are experiences that are encoded prior to the use of language easy to translate into words once children become verbally facile?” Howe asked. “Does the ability to verbally recall preverbal events vary as a function of the distinctiveness of the experience in memory, whether it is traumatic, and whether it has continued personal significance? … Are there changes in storage that militate against retention of early experiences? For example, does the acquisition of knowledge transform what is already in storage? Do changes in knowledge, particularly about the self, alter the personal significance of experiences, transforming them from ones that were once personally significant to events that are simply an interesting curiosity and are now more likely to be forgotten? Finally, do we need to have conscious access to past memories for them to exert their influence on us?”

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