In Sickness And In Health, It All Begins In The Womb

10/06/2016 12:52 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2016

In light of the recent Nobel Prizes in science, it seems worth considering the process by which a major discovery is made. Certainly it takes genius, sweat, years of research, not to mention, per Isaac Newton, “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Jules Verne wrote that science “is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

To some degree, it was through mistakes that we came upon what is emerging as a Nobel prize-worthy discovery. We were making the documentary film, In Utero, trying to bring together the most current science on pregnancy, as we moved towards having a child of our own.

But along the way, we encountered a concept in pregnancy called “the imprint”. We had of course known about baby ducks and birds being imprinted. But human beings? In the womb? As we dug deeper during production we found that human imprinting is being discovered and researched in the fields of genetics, epigenetics, psychology, biology, as well as numerous other subfields.

It was quite disturbing, learning that from conception until birth, each of us is imprinted (genetically, biologically, psychologically) with profound aspects of the mother (yes, like little ducklings).

And like ducks, the imprint is “passed on from generation to generation,” notes best-selling author, Dr. Thomas Verny. “If a certain gene is switched on, it will continue to be switched on until the environment somehow switches it off.”

Even more troubling is that for humans this imprint is not a positive development. “We have to be aware,” says Verny in our film, “that there is a whole spectrum of traumas that can happen to us. And it is those things that are passed on.”

“What we’re actually looking at is the impact of the multi-generational family history,” says Dr. Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction.

This is the imprint.

It is the part of our in utero development that hamstrings us. It may well explain why some of us are schizophrenic, bi-polar, anxious, depressed or just shy — as well as starting to explain accompanying somatic consequences — heart disease, cancer, immune deficiencies and so on.

It all begins in the womb.

It must also be noted that most of what is happening in utero is miraculously good and healthy. Every pregnant mother is a miracle of creativity as she carries her baby to term.

Another way to examine the positive (rather than negative) aspects, is that if we look at ourselves in daily life — handling things well, being happy, giving to others, behaving in an enlightened and mature way — this is where we were not imprinted. This is where the processes of fetal development were allowed to unfold naturally.

But when a mother is deeply stressed, depressed, anxious, terrified (for instance in a war or during domestic violence) then the imprint cuts into healthy development. If a mother “has a very high level of neurohormones,” notes Verny, “if she has very high levels of stress hormones, all of those things will be passed to the baby”.

And the more stress, the more damage, notes Dr. Moriah Thomason of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at Wayne State University. Working with advanced MRI brain scans of fetuses whose mothers are chronically stressed, her team has found “reductions in hippocampal volume” (important for learning and memory) “and an increase in amygdala volume” (important for the brain’s emotional processing). Disruption in those areas,” she continues in the film is “associated with higher risk for emotional psychopathology or neuropsychiatric illness.

So is this terrible news for all of us? Actually, no.

“It’s fantastic!” exclaims Dr. Rachel Yehuda in the film, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, because we are discovering processes that “provide the body with a way of continuously adapting to its environment. Bad environmental events cause change, good environmental events cause change. And what you’ve got to do is just make sure that you have enough of the good events.”

Good events.

In our earlier blogs we have discussed the importance of good events for pregnant women and their developing babies. But now we want to discuss how — as adults — we can begin to dismantle these imprints, unburdening our lives and helping those who are pregnant to diminish the imprint on their unborn children.

A number of therapies are emerging. We will explore them in future blogs. But before we heal, we must first face what has been holding us back. Does this discovery of the imprint help explain humanity’s inability to deal with issues that damage us in adult life — climate change, over-population, economic disparity, corruption, war, etc?

As Verny notes at the end of the film, “World ecology has to start with womb ecology. We cannot have peace and good people in the world without raising peaceful, good children. And that has to start at conception, not at birth, but at conception.”

Only time and more Nobel prize-worthy research will determine if this is true.

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