'Play "Let It Be" or I'll scream all night'

March 3, 2000

Want the definitive answer to the nature vs nurture question? Just tune into TV show Child of Our TimeI for the next 18 years. Anne Sebba reports.

Ten years ago, Steve Evans was a British Telecom engineer who spent his days climbing telephone poles. Now he is a PhD student, chasing across the country visiting 21 mothers and their babies. He is testing his theories about the pacifying effects after birth of music played to babies when they were in the womb.

Evans became interested in sounds and the use of language when he noticed how American and Australian soaps were affecting the Welsh language. He took a degree in psychology at Bath University and spent the next seven years at Keele University researching prenatal memory.

His is one of the experiments introduced in the new television series Child of Our Time, which follows a group of 24 babies from the womb to adulthood in an attempt to answer key questions in the nature versus nurture debate. Volunteer families have been picked from different parts of the country with as wide a variety of family backgrounds and environments as possible - emotional, financial and geographical - to take part in this giant experiment. An investigation of the genes that the babies have inherited will, it is hoped, indicate just how much their lives are determined even before they are born.

The programmes take advantage of state-of-the-art technologies such as 3D ultrasound scanning. But, fertility expert Robert Winston, presenter of the series, says it is not just about new tools. "We have so much more knowledge in human genetics today so that we can look at particular genes that are giving a measurable phenotype," he says. "For example, people who have the 'ace' gene are more capable of being efficient with energy so they can run faster and their muscles work more effectively. It is thought athletes have the ace gene and we will identify some babies with the ace gene, and see whether or not that prediction comes about and how it affects their sporting outcome."

The programmes will also monitor the roles of nature and nurture in physical appearance, dyslexia, hyperactivity, eczema, risk-taking, spatial awareness, anxiety and memory.

Evans decided to base his experiments on music because he could isolate it from the rest of the environment, as long as he chose something that could not have been heard anywhere else. But it was really a memory test to see when babies start to recall things from their previous environment.

"I already knew that a baby prefers to hear its own mother's or father's voice, which indicates memory," he says. "I wanted to know more."

He devised a tape of specially composed memorable or repetitive tunes, some of which are lullabies, played on a piano because it has the correct frequency range. He recommends that mothers play this for about 15 minutes a day for three or four days a week during pregnancy and is convinced that if it is then played to a young crying baby, the baby will rapidly calm down.

By the time he was called into the BBC programme, the mothers had already been playing music of their own choice to their babies. "Some had chosen whale music, which was totally inappropriate because it had nothing memorable about it and was just the sound of waves," Evans says. Another had chosen a song by UB40, which was memorable and therefore worked in the way he expected, as did Mozart.

Evans and his colleagues conduct the experiments by playing babies a piece of music that they have never heard before. The babies soon become bored and the music fails to calm them down. But a remembered piece, if it is the right sort, does.

"I've got babies in controlled experiments who will stop crying in three or four seconds and within one minute will sleep if they have been played the same memorable music while in the womb," Evans says.

He says the baby remembers the music because it has become a part of its environment, so when it is born, it is not a stranger in the household. In addition, the music is triggering a social response. The baby knows its surroundings and reacts favourably to them. It recognises its mother's and father's voices so is already part of the family and will respond as such. He says it is as if the baby is arming itself with a set of tools to ensure it is going to be looked after.

Another ongoing experiment is being conducted by Annette Karmiloff-Smith, professor in cognitive neuroscience at the Institute of Child Health, into "numerosity". She too has devised tapes, this time comprising patterns of simple regular beats on a xylophone in twos, threes or single beats. She believes that babies can recognise changes in patterns of numbers and respond in some way and that using these tapes could augment that process by getting the baby used to these patterns while in the womb.

Her ultimate aim is to train Down's syndrome babies. "We know that most normal babies will develop normal mathematical skills but children with Down's syndrome don't and the aim is to develop a technique that will enhance their possibilities in later life," she says.

Science is only just beginning to disentangle the way genes work in particular environments. As this series progresses through the years, it is hoped that some of the hotly debated questions in the nature versus nurture argument will be answered. Winston himself veers towards the nurture camp.

"I'm uncomfortable with the notion of a strong determinist argument because it goes against free will and the idea that people can adapt and improve themselves whatever they are handed out." It's a view that he admits is only partly based on science, is partly intuitive and partly a matter of belief.

He adds: "I think these programmes are important because they are intelligent, while assimilating entertainment. We are eavesdropping in a dynamic way on an ongoing scientific experiment. Anything worth explaining can be explained in a very simple way without being patronising and that is very important in the 21st century as the relationship between science and society becomes increasingly important."

Further information on Steve Evans's tapes is available at: www.babycalm.com. The first programme in the occasional Child of Our Time series was televised on February 23.

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