When does a fetus gain consciousness? Does life exist before birth?

Exploring the mysteries of consciousness, awareness, thought and the backdrop of our reality.

When does a fetus gain consciousness? It’s a question that scientists haven’t been able to answer, and one that has important philosophical, metaphysical, ethical, clinical and even legal implications.

With ‘consciousness’ itself, defining and discussing it can be tricky. This is because there are various definitions for what it is. Emerging science suggests consciousness may not be a product of the brain, but instead our brain may be a conduit for consciousness to express itself through.

Without going into too much detail, it’s safe to say there is an entire non-physical, immaterial reality directly intertwined with what we perceive to be our physical material world. Consciousness may permeate anything and everything.

In fact, many quantum and theoretical physicists believe that physical material matter cannot exist without consciousness, and that consciousness is perhaps what gives birth to physical reality and material things.

“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” – Max Planck, theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918

For the sake of this article, let’s label consciousness as the fabric of all things, in some cases, it may have an ‘awareness’ or the ability of life to perceive itself, others, and/or the environment.

Is a fetus alive before birth?

This is a question that’s been contemplated for thousands of years. In the Socratic dialogue, “Meno” by Plato, Socrates (Plato’s teacher) attempts to prove that life exists before birth. Instead of knowledge that we gain through experience as we move through life, Plato relied on prenatal knowledge to explain our ability to solve problems in mathematics and philosophy. He suggests that we must have known the answers to these problems all along.

Plato, among many others, was convinced that there were such things as absolute beauty and truth. He believed that what we call the ‘soul’ was eternal and that all knowledge was simply a form of remembering things that our soul knew before birth. According to Plato, this knowledge may come from the real world, not the one of illusion we currently live in, or from other past life experiences.

These experiences may not be limited to human life. Perhaps we experienced life as an animal in a past life, or perhaps we experienced life as another being on another planet at one point. There are potentially an infinite number of experiences a soul could have.

Plato believed that before birth, the soul possesses knowledge, but that knowledge is lost when we enter into the world at birth. According to Plato, our senses cloud the remembrance of real truths as we enter into the world of illusion and eventually become slaves to our senses.

Many spiritual practices, like Buddhism and several yogic philosophies, preach the abstinence of sensorial pleasure to an extent. Perhaps this is because the more we engage in our senses, the further we drift away from the innate knowledge of our soul. Then again, perhaps our soul came here to experience the gift of sensorial experiences, and that seeking to go beyond them at all times is not the point.

Maybe this is why very young children are able to recall what researchers believe to be past-life memories. The research and evidence of reincarnation, which may be one of multiple paths after what we perceive to be death, also adds legitimacy to Plato’s theory.

Carl Sagan once stated that reincarnation deserves “serious study” because “young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking into turn out to be accurate and could not have been known about in any other way other than reincarnation.”

It’s nice to see that serious inquiry in this area has been conducted.

But it’s not just Plato. The idea that we exist before birth, and we perhaps choose to come and experience this realm is a fairly popular belief in metaphysical philosophy. And it’s not limited to humans. Hippocrates wrote that the soul “is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different.”

Were these just beliefs? Or did this knowledge come from somewhere? There are so many examples in ancient philosophy from all over the world that correlate with modern day findings about the nature of our reality. It’s fascinating to explore. There are many parallels with quantum and theoretical physics.

Many scientists have come to the conclusion that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality. Quantum physicists have also shown that consciousness, or the simple act of observing a particle, can change and influence its behaviour as if the particle itself is conscious!

This doesn’t necessarily translate to the belief that our thoughts absolutely affect our collective reality, but something rather mysterious is indeed going on.

If a particle can be conscious, if this is the case and all life (including human sperm and egg) is made up of these particles, does that mean sperm and egg are conscious? If so, what does that mean about how we perceive life?

You have to admit, the processes of biology are fascinatingly intelligent. It’s hard to imagine these processes being able to complete themselves without possessing some sort of consciousness beyond our own. Perhaps sperm, and all of the candidates that try and make their way into the egg, are conscious beings having their own experience within our body.

Who really knows.

When pregnancy begins

What do we know about consciousness and awareness when pregnancy begins? If you don’t subscribe to the philosophy above and stick to the parameters of modern day science (which can be limiting in some ways), then what is known?

If you believe consciousness is a product of the brain, we know that at just six weeks, the embryo’s brain and nervous system begin to develop. But again, there is no proof that consciousness is a product of the brain, and the evidence suggesting that consciousness may not originate from the brain is quite compelling.

One of the latest studies on the matter was published last month by Trinity College Dublin. The team of Researchers from from Dublin, Australia, Germany and the USA found evidence that some form of conscious experience is present by birth, and perhaps even in late pregnancy.

The researchers argue that by birth the infant’s developing brain is capable of conscious experiences that can make a lasting imprint on their developing sense of self and understanding of their environment.

When I read this, specifically the term “lasting,” I was instantly reminded of a recent discussion I had with a close friend. She told me the following:

“When I was 4-5 years old, I used to have a recurring dream that I was sitting on the couch suffocating, reaching out to my mother for help but she couldn’t see me. She was casually talking on the phone pacing back and forth and it was like for her I wasn’t there cause she didn’t notice me. So when I found out that I was born suffocating and separated from her at birth, the dream made sense to me. The dream always felts real, like i would wake up gasping for air.”

During birth, the amniotic fluid didn’t get pushed out of her lungs, so she was drowning in amniotic fluid essentially. She almost didn’t make it.

A fetus, or even a baby at the time of birth possesses awareness, but the degree to which it thinks is certainly still being understood. That said, although we may not remember our experiences during that time, perceptions and nervous system imprints as a fetus or a newborn baby are clearly linked to developmental trauma as seen in its impact on later years of life.

Infant consciousness is a mysterious thing because a fetus or an infant cannot tell us what they think or feel in the way we grow accustomed to communication.

“Nearly everyone who has held a newborn infant has wondered what, if anything, it is like to be a baby. But of course we cannot remember our infancy, and consciousness researchers have disagreed on whether consciousness arises ‘early’ (at birth or shortly after) or ‘late’ – by one year of age, or even much later.” – Dr Tim Bayne, Professor of Philosophy at Monash University

Another recent study determined that babies as young as four months old can make sense of how their bodies interact with the space around them.

The researchers showed babies a ball on a screen moving towards or away from them. When the ball was closest to them on the screen, the babies were presented with a ‘touch’ (a small vibration) on their hands, whilst their brain activity was being measured.

They found that from just four months old, babies show enhanced somatosensory (tactile) brain activity when a touch is preceded by an object moving towards them.

Dr. Giulia Orioli, Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Birmingham, who led the study explained,

“Our findings indicate that even in the first few months of life, before babies have even learned to reach for objects, the multisensory brain is wired up to make links between what babies see and what they feel. This means they can sense the space around them and understand how their bodies interact with that space.”

But this isn’t really intriguing, you don’t really need science to tell you that a four-month-old baby possesses conscious awareness.

What would be more fascinating would be studies conducted with newborns.

“It is a challenge working with newborns, as they spend such a large portion of their time sleeping and eating, but we are starting to have some success working with this age group, and it is going to be fascinating to see if babies only a few days old have the foundations of a sense of their bodies in space. If so, it could be that we are looking at the origins of human consciousness.” – Orioli

For those who assume that consciousness is mainly localized in the cortex (brain), consciousness cannot emerge before 24 gestational weeks when the thalamocortical connections from the sense organs are established. This is why the limit of legal abortion at 22-24 weeks in many countries makes sense from a scientific lens.

Again, I must emphasize that these laws are purely based on assumptions of when conscious awareness begins, not facts.

Concluding Remarks

At the end of the day, my research has led me to personally believe that all life is conscious and aware, and that all biological systems have the capability of self-awareness and beyond. This includes plant life, which for years has shown signs of conscious intelligence. Plants for example can use awareness to assess their environment and make necessary changes. Does this mean they think? That is still a hotly debated topic, but plants are certainly conscious.

Below is a great video from Dr. Gary Schwartz, a Professor of Psychology, Medicine, Neurology, Psychiatry and Surgery at the University of Arizona. In the video, he discusses whether consciousness is the product of the brain or a receiver of it, from a perspective of consciousness that’s more aligned with what I mentioned at the beginning of the article.

It’s a fantastic and short overview of an immense amount of research; this subject has tons of peer-reviewed scientific research behind it which not many people have the time to go through themselves, and he has thoughtfully condensed that research to allow more people access to it.