How aware are fetuses of the outside world? Previous research have found that late in the third trimester, they can respond to their mother’s voice and even music. British scientists recently took our understanding one step farther. Researchers at Lancaster University projected light inside the uteruses of pregnant mothers. Some contained an image much like a face, including eyes and a nose.

Newborns are preoccupied with faces. This may be due to their need to bond with their parents. Here, scientists wanted to know if this was true of third trimester fetuses, as well. They found that a 34-week old fetus will actually turn its head to see a light pattern that looks like a face. While most ignored patterns that didn’t appear face-like.

The patterns consisted of three red dots presented as either an upside down triangle, which represented a face, or a topside up one. 39 pregnant women, each in the third trimester of pregnancy, participated. Researchers first determined how the light would look when it was shone through the mother’s belly and projected onto the uterus. Computer modeling helped them work this out.

The three red dots projected into the womb and how they might look to a fetus. Current Biology.

Researchers chose an intensity of light which the fetus would most likely recognize. The next step was to see how the fetus was sitting and which way it was facing, determined via ultrasound. From there, they decided to place the dots on either the left or right side of the womb, opposite of where the fetus was facing.

More often than not, when the pattern made an upside down triangle, the fetus’s head would turn toward and even follow it. But when the pattern didn’t resemble a face, the fetus was more likely to ignore it. The results of the study were published in the journal Current Biology. Professor Vincent Reid is a psychologist at Lancaster University and the lead researcher on this study.

Prof. Reid said,

The fetus in the third trimester actively seeks out information. In our study they had to move their head to keep looking at the face-like stimulus when we moved it away from them. So they are active participants in finding information from the environment. What this means is that other ways of interacting with the fetus can be considered. The fetus in the third trimester can hear very well. I would encourage expecting parents to read books out loud to each other. This can help with bonding and could be beneficial. 

Dr. Reid suggests speaking and reading out loud to the developing child. Getty Images.

This is also the first time something has been successfully projected inside the womb for a fetus to see. I smell a really early education program coming out in the near future. Some experts are hailing these findings as a great first step, in learning about how our vision forms. Lots of experiments have looked at what fetuses can hear, but few have evaluated what they can see. A newborn’s sight is poor, Dr. Reid said and so we can expect the same from a fetus at this stage. What it does see is probably blurry.

Why they followed certain patterns isn’t rightly known. They may be “hardwired” to recognize faces or even light. Prof. Reid even suggests that light coming in through the womb might help us develop our vision. In fact, he tells pregnant mothers not to shine a light through their belly, for risk of hurting the fetus’s eyes.

So how does this effect the abortion debate? The experiment was performed late in the term. In the US, late-term abortions are only performed when the fetus has a serious birth defect or the mother’s life is in danger, or both. There is currently a ban on late-term, partial birth abortions. 91.5% of all abortions are performed in the first trimester, at around 14 weeks into pregnancy. Since this is the first meaningful thrust into understanding how human vision develops, it’s unlikely to be used as fodder. This isn’t strongly established science. But that’s not the only reason.

Facial or light recognition could be as “hardwired” as the grasp reflex. Getty Images.

There’s actually a lot of debate in the scientific community regarding the validity of this study. Jane DiPietro is a developmental psychologist and the chief of the Johns Hopkins Fetal Development Project. She called these conclusions “not implausible.” But she said, “What bothers me is that this study does not show that (fetus’s see) in any way,” she told Gizmodo. “I find it sensational and not based on the data.”

Strikes against the study include the fact that newborns have difficulty discerning patterns. So how could fetuses? Another is that the computer model determined how the dots were projected inside the womb. Researchers didn’t actually witness these projections for themselves. So how do they know if one version was actually face-like? Though it’s hard to account for these, Prof. Reid says that the movement of the fetuses heads suggested that the they picked up on the projection.

Of course, far more research must be done to corroborate or discredit these findings. But the thrust Reid and colleagues have made may be the larger point. “This method has the potential to open up the field of visual perception in the fetus,” Reid said. “That in itself is a huge leap forward.”

 To hear what a prominent bioethicist has to say on abortion, click here: