December 12th, 2011
08:35 AM ET

What babies learn before they're born

Editor's note: Annie Murphy Paul is the author of "Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives." She's now working on a book about learning, and writes a weekly column at Time.com called "Brilliant: The Science of Smart." TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it distributes through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) - When does learning begin? As I explain in the talk I gave at TED, learning starts much earlier than many of us would have imagined: in the womb.

I was surprised as anyone when I first encountered this notion. I'm a science writer, and my job is to trawl the murky depths of the academic journals, looking for something shiny and new - a sparkling idea that catches my eye in the gloom.

Starting a few years ago, I began noticing a dazzling array of findings clustered around the prenatal period. These discoveries were generating considerable excitement among scientists, even as they overturned settled beliefs about when we start absorbing and responding to information from our environment. As a science reporter - and as a mother - I had to find out more.

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