Fetal awareness and especially fetal pain are controversial, political issues. However, I do not wish to get into politics and want to merely stick to the scientific evidence. I have found statements about fetuses in the womb that seem to contradict each other, yet there has been no reference to the opponents in either side.

Some believe that fetuses do not have awareness in the womb and cannot feel pain. Here is an argument along those lines, claiming that fetuses cannot feel pain, even when their nervous systems and brain are developed, because the chemical environment within the womb suppresses awareness and experience that shapes the brain only happens outside the womb.

However, some other evidence seems to claim that fetuses can have experience. Twins can interact with each other in the womb as early as 14 weeks of gestation, as stated here. It is possible to learn in the womb, and newborns, even after they are born, can retain this knowledge, as stated here.

I'm not sure what to think. Are some of these statements, such as the idea fetuses are not aware, just incorrect? Or can interaction and learning occur without awareness somehow? (I know pain is distinct from awareness, interaction, and learning. What seemed particularly strange was the idea that fetuses have no conscious experience whatsoever, especially as no one making that claim, as far as I know, even mentioned the evidence about interaction and learning at all).

  • $\begingroup$ FYI, your third link gives a 404 response. $\endgroup$
    – vkehayas
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ @vkehayas It doesn't for me, so I'm not sure what happened to you. Sorry. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22, 2018 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


I know close to nothing about the subject of self-awareness in fetuses.

But learning —and certainly interaction— can occur without anything close to human "awareness", as evident by the fact that systems without a brain (and even without neurons) can learn. Any system that can process and store information is capable of learning. Does your definition of awareness include anything more than this? Conversely, organisms with a very simple brain can display aversive behaviour.

For an example of memory without neurons, see the Wikipedia article on immunological memory. For examples of aversive behaviour without a proper brain see Zhang, Lu, and Bargmann 2005 and Babin et al. 2014

Zhang, Y., Lu, H., & Bargmann, C. I. (2005). Pathogenic bacteria induce aversive olfactory learning in Caenorhabditis elegans. Nature, 438(7065), 179–184.
Babin, A., Kolly, S., Schneider, F., Dolivo, V., Zini, M., & Kawecki, T. J. (2014). Fruit flies learn to avoid odours associated with virulent infection. Biology Letters, 10(3), 20140048–20140048.

  • $\begingroup$ Um, don't fruit flies and C. elegans have an actual brain? Yes, I know it would be a very small brain, but it still counts as a brain, as far as I know. Anyway, stuff such as invertebrate awareness is controversial as well, to say the least, but I don't believe there has been 100% proof that they aren't conscious, and some scientists believe it exists. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22, 2018 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ Furthermore, I was actually talking about the point when the nervous system and brain do develop in fetuses. The argument I mentioned was not about whether those things had developed (they have by that time), but whether the chemical environment in the womb suppressed consciousness. The studies you mentioned don't seem to be relevant anyway, come to think of it. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22, 2018 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Inflationary_Bubble You asked if learning is possible without awareness. If you accept that the immune system does not have awareness, then I demonstrated one way learning is possible without human-like awareness. If you are willing to consider that the immune system and C. elegans have some rudimentary form of awareness, the only consistent thesis is panpsychism. $\endgroup$
    – vkehayas
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Inflationary_Bubble Then it becomes a matter of identifying the degree of awareness which is an empirical question that is not really possible to answer with current methods, although it is reasonable to assume that the maturity of the fetal nervous system could be a relevant parameter. But please note that in that case the apparent contradiction also dissolves, as awareness is no longer a binary feature. The definition issue of whether you call it a brain or a collection of ganglia in the case of C. elegans is inconsequential for the answer. $\endgroup$
    – vkehayas
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Inflationary_Bubble The fundamental problem in the apparent contradiction is then that you consider awareness as a binary feature (you either have it or you don't). However there exists no clear line dividing aware from non-aware systems. In my opinion, it is more productive to think in terms of information processing and storing. $\endgroup$
    – vkehayas
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 9:15

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