In their attempts to gain greater and greater control over the way in which children grow and develop, people are developing strategies for influencing children at earlier and earlier ages. For quite some time, there has been the notion that practically every moment of a child’s free time should be slotted with organized classes and activities to enrich his life. But now inventors have come up with what would appear to be the ultimate enrichment – slotted organized defined discrete activity for the fetus in the womb.
No longer content with music appearing as muffled sounds being transmitted to the fetus through headphones around the belly, pregnant mothers now have the possibility of transmitting music to the fetus more directly through a kind of vaginal tampon with speakers. This vaginal tampon is connected to a smartphone and works sort of like an iPod. Without the abdominal wall acting as a partial sound barrier, music can be sent more directly and more clearly. Supposedly this early stimulation by music acts to accelerate neural development and make a child verbal at an earlier age. And this accelerated development will supposedly lead to more and greater achievements as a child grows into adulthood.
It sounds great, but one wonders if there may be a downside to all of this early stimulation and activity. Maybe there is a reason for fetuses to be so protected that they can normally only hear muffled sounds through the abdominal walls of the mother. Maybe this is nature’s way of protecting fetuses and allowing them to engage in other kinds of growth and development. Growth and development that can only occur when there is a relative experiential separation from the external world.
There have been discussions in this column of two different aspects of the sense of self that have to develop properly in order for a person to have a healthy sense of self. One aspect is self-definition. This is the aspect that is usually referred to when there are discussions of strengthening a person’s sense of self. This aspect involves developing the boundaries of a sense of self such that a person feels unique and different from and separate from other people. This frequently involves having unique experiences, developing distinct personality traits and developing unique skills or a special excellence in certain skills. It involves the defined discrete stimuli that a person emits, that he gives off to others.
The other important aspect of self to consider is self-coherence. This involves the quality of internal bonding within a person, the quality of smooth continual flow of self within a person. This quality usually develops much more fully in preliterate societies where a person is deeply bonded externally with nuclear family, extended family, clan, tribe and village. The strong external bonds in all these groupings encourage the development of strong internal bonds within a person.
But before a person is born, the strong bonding of a fetus with his mother in the womb is the first major life situation to encourage strong self-coherence. The fetus is partly merged with his mother, and this merging with someone outside of himself stimulates internal merging within himself. Ideally, the fetus is already developing this aspect of his sense of self, before he has the opportunity to emerge into the external world. The need to develop strong self-coherence continues after a child is born and well into childhood.
It is essential that a fetus develops a strong self-coherence, before it is stimulated too much to develop strong self-definition. If the fetus (or child) starts developing strong self-definition before it has developed strong self-coherence, the sense of self can start to fragment. Putting aside the Babypod, the trend towards all these enrichment programs and slotted activities to stimulate brain development in very young children is already contributing to this kind of problem. Young children are no longer allowed as much time to simply engage in reverie or their own imaginative play. And, of course, when they do have time, they become engaged in video games or else watching television on their smart phones. No time, no opportunity, no inclination to just do nothing or create their own world of activity. Smartphones, with all their defined discrete stimuli, are introduced to children at a very early age, and children get hooked on them.
Now some people want to start with defined discrete stimuli (in the Babypod music, the notes of a song or the lyrics, the fact that a song has a beginning and an end) at an even earlier age than childhood. The melodies coming through the vagina give a fetus supposedly a more accelerated neural development. Then, after the fetus is born and becomes a baby and then a child, he will develop several capacities at an earlier age to perform in different activities, but he will always be lacking much of the stimulation of quiet reverie, of the flowing blendable continual stimuli of daydreaming.
For such a child, achieving, excelling becomes the only foundation of his sense of self. It is very difficult for such a child to be doing nothing and to engage in reverie or else to engage in imaginative play, because he has little self-coherence. And, as he grows older, he loses his capacity to develop self-coherence. He becomes hooked on the activities that provide self-definition, the situations that provide defined discrete stimuli, in order to feel alive. Not only does such a person not develop the capacity for deep internal bonding, but he also doesn’t develop the capacity for strong bonding with other people. Without strong self-coherence, the person moves in the direction of becoming a robot.
Just to fine-tune what is being said here, there is no attempt being made to diminish the importance of developing early hobbies, early activities, early skills in a young child. What is of concern is when a child can never be allowed to just do nothing, to engage in reverie or involve himself in nondirected play that doesn’t have an ulterior purpose. Just as we now know that sleep is very important for the health of an individual - an activity that seems like a non-activity that wastes time, so reverie and dreamy imaginative play – a non-activity and an unfocused activity that seem to waste time – can be very important for a person as well, in terms of psychological health.
And a fetus needs to float in the placenta and not focus and to develop a strong coherent sense of self. It is an essential part of his becoming human. He doesn’t need the intrusion of a musical vaginal tampon with speakers in order to speed up neural development. Maybe that tampon will make a great achiever of him, but only at the cost of having a coherent sense of self. We should just stop tinkering with nature so much.
© 2016 Laurence Mesirow