So far I’ve avoided writing about the nature nurture debate for my blog posts but I think the time has finally come for me to put in my two cents. The section of The Synaptic Self that discusses embryonic development particularly intrigued me because I had never though of the womb as being an ‘environment’ per se, one that can truly influence development. Now I see that Howard Gardner was probably right: the embryonic fluid of mothers, in part, dictates embryonic brain development. The baby’s genes (nature) do not work completely independently of the chemical environment and body chemistry of the mother, which is essentially the baby’s environment for nine months (nurture).
Pregnant women have always been told to eat well; after all, whatever they eat is essentially what the baby eats. They are told to eat what they crave but also the healthier the better. It turns out that there might be another incentive to have mothers eat well. Research shows that what a pregnant woman eats is not only important for nourishing her growing child but is also doing more. The mother’s food choices likely shape the food preferences that the child has later in life.
Researchers have found that flavors such as “vanilla, carrot, garlic and mint” have all been found in the mother’s amniotic fluid. Actually, the researchers didn’t test a single flavor that didn’t show up in utero. As part of the experiment participants were asked to smell amniotic fluid from women who had either taken a garlic capsule or a sugar one. The participants were easily able to ascertain which women consumed the garlic. Since taste is “90-percent smell” the researchers were able to deduce that the babies could taste these flavors as well.
Of course, babies do not automatically take on their mother’s food preferences; rather, exposing babies to these flavors early on primes them to like them later. The more the babies get exposed to these flavors, the more likely they are to enjoy them so why not start very early? I think that this research speaks for the influence of early environmental conditions affecting development. It adds weight for the nurture side of the debate and reminds us just how early nurturing begins and how it interacts with nature right from the time of conception.