Toward a Scientific Approach to Prenatal Psychology: From Twilight to Dialog1

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ABSTRACT: The history of child psychology developed around the question of how far, and in what way children are different from adults and different from children in later stages of life. This presented problems for prenatal psychology. The author follows the evolution of thought about prenatal life from Sigmund Freud, Sandor Ferenczi, Otto Rank and Gustav Hans Graber, the founder and first president of the International Studysociety in Prenatal Psychology (ISPP). The author describes the important early steps taken to establish a multidisciplinary scientific dialog on prenatal psychology, to reach out to University students, and to educate the public. In conclusion, he reflects on three principles which guided the Society in the past and will guide them in the future.


At the end of our century all mass-media will report the dramatic changes in our knowledge about world and space during the last 100 years. Perhaps some will remember that the inner life of mankind became more discernible with the rise of psychoanalysis. Will they also appreciate the new comprehension of our own psychic development from intrauterine life which this century has brought? I think they will not. But why?

Let us look back to the first half of the 20th century. At that time nearly all scientists thought psychic life began after birth. I can remember a statement by psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1946) to this effect:

Psychoanalysts have explored life before conscious remembrance as a foundation for all later life. Without substance, and therefore illusory, are such considerations in respect to embryonic time. We neither have mental life as an embryo nor remember it.

Even for pioneers like Anna Freud (1947) discussions of embryonic consciousness seemed to be "completely crazy". Until the 1970s few textbooks of developmental psychology even described the prenatal period of life, and those that did focused on physical development alone. There is a long latency period for new fields of research such as ours. A connection with everyday life must be established before prenatal evidence is seriously considered. As an example, in 1842 a mathematician published a theoretical paper in which the light from a moving star was compared with the acoustical phenomenon of a moving source of sound. At this tune and for decades to come, no one realized that this insight would allow us to look into space and plan a trip to the moon. Even after this trip took place, few people hi Salzburg knew that this man, Christian Doppler, had been born in our city. This changed later, of course, when the Doppler effect became important for radar control of airplanes, measurement of speed by police, and ultimately for measurements of fetal behaviors in the womb.

Today we can point to evidence for early memory, observe fetal behavior in the womb, and can judge the importance this has for later Ufe. We see also the integration of various sciences in approaching prenatal life-a fascinating development. We are moving step by step from twilight to clarity for professionals, journalists, and the general public. In a recent book, First Feelings, Katharina Zimmer (1998) wrote, "Scientists from various disciplines are convinced that there are prenatal experiences that influence later life; not only experts in prenatal psychology but also pediatricians, developmental neurologists, and child psychiatrists."

During the first decades of the 20th century, child-psychology considered how far and in what way children are different from adults, or different from children at later developmental stages. Models of full-grown people influenced our views about children. For Sigmund Freud (and therefore for psychoanalysis) clinical evidence came from the behavior and experience of adults. His grand idea was that mental problems were based on the early stages of development. A century ago (1897) he wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss, "Now all moves for me more to the first period of life to three years. …