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From Birth Psychology to the Embodied Mind

My journey from Freud to epigenetics and the quantum mind.

Key points

  • The size of a human brain is unrelated to its information content, intelligence, or capacities.
  • The brain is part of a much larger communication network in the body. It does not act alone.
  • This extended brain—the embodied brain—acts as a back-up memory storage system and “tops up” whatever data are missing in the brain.

As a 13-year-old boy, I read Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in the original German in Vienna. I was fascinated by how Freud’s slow, methodical questioning eventually led to the discovery of deeply hidden unconscious conflicts in the lives of his patients. Then and there, I resolved to become a psychiatrist.

Years later, when I had become a psychiatrist, I continued to be fascinated by dreams and the unconscious. One day, while working with a young man on his dream, he suddenly, without any input from me, started to cry like a little baby. He cried for close to 10 minutes and then stopped on his own. What just happened, I asked him. He told me that in his mind he found himself in a crib and that he was crying for his mother. Then, he recalled that he had actually seen photos of himself as an infant and some of them pictured him lying in a blue crib, whereas the crib that he had just experienced was definitely The Unborn Child, which is now published in 27 countries and continues to enjoy wide popularity.

At the time, almost 40 years ago now, I had much solid scientific evidence to back up the central premise of my book, namely, that an unborn child is a sensing, feeling, conscious, and remembering being, at least three months before birth. However, I had little or no scientific evidence to support cognition of any kind extending back further in time. Of course, given the rapidity of development and change in the biomedical sciences these past decades, 40 years is practically an eon ago. He wondered about the discrepancy. I suggested that he ask his mother to resolve this question. The next week he returned for his regular appointment and told me that, according to his mother, when he was born, his parents lacked money for a new crib but were able to borrow one from a neighbor. The borrowed crib was white. A few months later, they were able to buy a new crib for him and that new crib was blue. That is the one all the photos were taken of.

Early Memories

I felt both intrigued and mystified by this experience since, throughout my studies first at the University of Toronto then Harvard University, I was taught that children remember nothing before the age of 2. And yet, as I continued to practice, I repeatedly encountered patients who would tell me about events in their lives reaching far back in time to infancy, birth, and even womb life. A few of these memories may have originated from overheard conversations by family members or gleaned from photo albums or videos. On the other hand, a considerable number would not have been easily available and were corroborated by evidence supplied by parents, hospital reports, and other documentation. I wondered how to explain these memories scientifically. It was then that, after much study, research, and personal contacts with colleagues in obstetrics, psychology, psychiatry, and other sciences, I wrote The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. The new science of epigenetics not only confirms my claims in The Secret Life but also enables me to put forward the bold new concepts in The Embodied Mind.

The Embodied Mind

What set me on this path toward the embodied mind was an article I read six years ago reprinted from Reuters Science News entitled, “Tiny brain no obstacle to French civil servant.” It seems that, in July 2007, a 44-year-old French man went to a hospital complaining of a mild weakness in his left leg. When doctors learned that the man had a spinal shunt removed when he was 14, they performed numerous scans of his head. What they discovered was a huge fluid-filled chamber occupying most of the space in his skull, leaving little more than a thin sheet of actual brain tissue. It was a case of hydrocephalus—literally, water on the brain. Dr. Lionel Feuillet of Hôpital de la Timone in Marseille was quoted as saying, “The images were most unusual...the brain was virtually absent.” The patient was a married father of two children and worked as a civil servant apparently leading a normal life, despite having a cranium filled with spinal fluid and very little brain tissue. To my surprise, I found in the medical literature an astonishing number of documented cases of adults who as children had parts of their brain removed to heal their persistent epilepsy.

Following hemispherectomy, most children showed not only an improvement in their intellectual capacity and sociability but also apparent retention of memory, personality, and sense of humor. Similarly, adults who have had hemispherectomies enjoyed excellent long-term seizure control and increased postoperative employability. If people who lack a large part of their brain can function normally, or even relatively normally, then there must exist, I thought, some kind of a back-up system that can kick in when the primary system crashes. I devoted the next six years studying the medical and scientific literature searching for clues to this puzzle.

While many scientists have contributed greatly in advancing science in their own areas of expertise, be that genetics or cellular biology, I have synthesized here empirically supported research and hypotheses from diverse fields of investigation, “connected the dots,” and, in the process, arrived at significant new insights about the brain and the brain–mind relationship.


Feuillet, L., Dufour, H., Pelletier, J. (2007). "Brain of a white-collar worker." Lancet 370, no. 9583: 262.

Lewin R. (1980). Is your brain really necessary? Science 21 no. 4475, 1232–1234 10.1126/science.6107993 and Lorber J. (1978). Is Your Brain Really Necessary. Arch Dis Child 53, no 10, 834–835.

McClelland III, S., & Maxwell, R. E. (2007). Hemispherectomy for intractable epilepsy in adults: the first reported series. Annals of Neurology, 61(4), 372–376.

Villemure, J. G., & Rasmussen, T. H. (1993). Functional hemispherectomy in children. Neuropediatrics 24, no. 1, 53–55.

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