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The Psychobiology of Conception

Reverberations of our uterine experience in the now.

Key points

  • Stress is the one most consistent factor that may show an effect on how long it takes to get pregnant.
  • You can reduce stress by practicing yoga, meditation, exercise, listening to music, dancing, laughing, and getting plenty of sleep.
  • Your womb life starting from conception may leave imprints on your mind.

Conception and pregnancy are complicated processes that depend on many factors, including the production of hardy sperm, healthy eggs, unblocked fallopian tubes that allow the sperm to reach the egg, the sperm’s capacity to fertilize the egg when they meet, the ability of the fertilized egg to become implanted in the woman’s uterus, and a thriving robust embryo. For the pregnancy to progress to full term, the woman’s uterine environment must support the child’s development. If just one of these factors is impaired, a cascade of mishaps may develop, from infertility to miscarriage, congenital malformations, and a variety of mental and physical disorders in the child.

Conception

Women over the age of 35 are at a greater risk than younger women to develop complications of pregnancy such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, delivering pre-term, having low birthweight babies, or suffering a miscarriage.

Age affects men as well. Men over the age of 40 are more likely to experience problems conceiving and there is some evidence that as men age there is an increased risk of congenital anomalies in offspring (1). Also, excessive alcohol consumption has been implicated in impaired spermatogenesis (the making of new sperms) and an increase in sperm structural anomalies (2).

While the literature on health risks surrounding obesity and pregnancy has largely focused on overweight mothers, reproductive experts from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Zoology have discovered that a father’s obesity negatively impacts sperm, resulting in smaller fetuses, poor pregnancy success, and reduced placental development. They urge men (in typically Aussie fashion) to get “match fit” before conceiving to assist with fetal development (3).

Couples trying to become pregnant by way of the various assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) may become increasingly stressed by the process, setting in motion a self-perpetuating cycle of stress which makes it even more difficult to conceive.

As Germaine Buck Louis of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has said, “Of all the lifestyle factors studied to date, stress is the one most consistent factor that shows an effect on how long it takes to get pregnant”(4).

Memories of Our Beginnings

A virtually unknown analyst, Sabina Spielrein, wrote the very first paper that ever dealt with the psychology of conception (5). It was called “Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being” and was delivered in Vienna in 1912 to the small circle of analysts around Freud. In her paper, Spielrein argued that in the fusion of the two gametes (egg and sperm), both destruction and new creation occur. The male segment becomes dissolved in the female while the female segment becomes disorganized and takes on a new shape through the alien intruder. Destruction and reconstruction, which ordinarily happen slowly and cyclically, here take place rapidly. Spielrein believed that it would be unlikely if the individual did not at least sense these destructive and reconstructive processes.

In fact, it was not until the '70s that the brilliant Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing pioneered the systematic psychological exploration of the hitherto unknown territory of intra-uterine life. In his groundbreaking book, The Facts of Life, Laing reported that some of his patients spoke of their body image or had dreams in which they would spin, revolve, float, fly; be dashed against rocks; be washed ashore and be washed away again, before journey’s end. One can make the case, as improbable as that may seem, that this is what a blastocyst would experience as it is tumbling down the oviduct (the Fallopian tube that leads from the ovary to the uterus) (6).

The next stage of the blastocyst’s journey would be implantation in the uterine wall. There are people who have a lifelong fear of being sucked in, drawn in, dragged down or who long to be rescued, revived, welcomed, or who are preoccupied with getting into a club, a university, or any place that is difficult to gain admission to. Laing relates how one of his patients in a therapy session said, “I feel I am clinging to crumbling rocks liable to be swept away in the torrent. Hanging on for dear life, trying to get a foothold, never seeming as though I can get into what I’m doing.” Again, one can see how a “memory” such as this may accurately reflect on the experience of a difficult implantation.

“It seems to me credible ... that all our experience in our life cycle from cell one is absorbed and stored from the beginning, perhaps especially in the beginning. How that may happen I do not know. How can one generate the billions of cells that I now am? We are impossible but for the fact that we are.” Later Laing asserts, “It is at least conceivable to me that myths, legends, stories, dreams, fantasies and conduct may contain strong reverberations of our uterine experience.”

Some years ago, I received the following letter.

One evening, when my daughter, Ingrid, was 3 years old, we were just sitting at the dining room table and remembering some pajamas I wore when I was pregnant with her. Just kidding, we asked her if she remembered the pajamas and her answer floored us, “I couldn’t see what you were wearing I could only hear what you were saying.” We just couldn’t believe it so we began questioning her. What was it like? “Dark and crowded.” What else? “It was like a big bowl of water.” What did you think when you were born? “I could stretch, it wasn’t crowded anymore.” This child could carry on a conversation without ever saying she saw things—only what she heard and how it felt. We said, “What was your favorite food?” “I didn’t get any food.” She never answered our questions wrong.

Conclusion

For a long time, scientists discounted clinical reports of early memories as anecdotal, of no scientific value. They accepted the neurological dictum that the brain is incapable of storing memories before the age of 2. In my book, The Embodied Mind, I show how wrong they were. Memories going back as far as conception are real.

References

1. Tough S.C., Vekved M., Newburn-Cook C. (2012). Do factors that influence pregnancy planning differ by maternal age? A population based survey. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada. 34(1): 39-46.

2. Donnelly, G. P., McClure, N., Kennedy, M. S., and Lewis, S. E. M. (1999). Direct effect of alcohol on the motility and morphology of human spermatozoa. Andrologia, Volume 31, Issue 1, pages 43–47.

3. Gardner, David; Hannan, Natalie and Binder, Natalie (2012). Thinking about kids? Men need to shed the kilos. news@media.unimelb.edu.au@uommedia

4. Louis, Germaine M. Buck; Lum, Kirsten J. et al., (2011). Stress Reduces Conception Probabilities across the Fertile Window: Evidence in Support of Relaxation. Fertil Steril. 95(7): 2184–2189.

5. Spielrein, Sabina (1912). “Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being”, Jahrbuch fur psychoanalytische Forschungen, 4:465-503, Vienna.

6. Laing, R. D. (1976). The Facts of Life. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 45.

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