AA ARTICLE Highlights of a phenomenological Embryology – 2005 EN


Highlights of a phenomenological Embryology – Principles of a prenatal Psychologie. By Jaap ven der Wal and Guus van der Bie. Translation by the authors of Grundzüge einer phänomenologischen Embryologie, erschienen in Inge Krens/Hans Krens (Hg.), Grundlagen einer vorgeburtlichen Psychologie, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2005


Embryonic behavior – behaving in forms

Professionals in prenatal psychology most often refer to prenatal existence and prenatal experience in the sense of fetal existence. From a biological point of view however, prenatal existence also includes the phase of embryonic life. Embryonic life is a matter of organogenesis and somatogenesis. The fetus is distinguishable from the embryo by the fact that in the former the body plan has been completed in principle. In the embryo it is still developing and in progress. The limit between embryo and fetus is said to be at about 10 weeks of development after conception. The prenatal psychologist considers a human being to pass through transformations or variations of our first prenatal experiences during later cycles of life, even before it comes to a special developed nervous system in our body. The conventional embryologist may object that it is inappropriate for an embryo to function in psychological respect when there is nothing more present than a very simple or primitive nervous system still developing. The confronting question is whether it is possible for an embryo to have experiences or to show motivated behavior when one assumes that soul life and behavior are restricted or limited to a functioning nervous system.

A possible key to this dilemma might be given in the definition of behavior. One may also read behavior in living organisms from their morphe (form) and Gestalt, from their continuously changing morphological appearance (van der Bie, 2001). An organism always presents itself as a unity of shape, function and environment, continuously changing in time (Rose 1998). The rose in the vase is not the rose. One has to include time into his (her) image of the rose: out of seed to plant, to knob and flower, to withering, etc. Far before it comes to acting outwardly, to performing so to speak, the organism already shows behavior in a morphological sense; it exhibits behavior by means of its forms, bodily organization and its shape.
The question “Does an embryo show behavior?” challenges the current (mostly reductionistic) paradigm of modern biology and psychology: most scientists nowadays would give a negative answer in the sense of “That is not possible yet”. Not before the fifth month of human prenatal existence any serious anatomical substrate is present that could be considered as a brain in which something as ‘function’ could be demonstrated by means of physiological phenomena like electrical brain activity. Muscle contractions and movements are present then, mostly interpreted as simple involuntary reflexes. Earlier in time however, during the embryonic phase even fewer phenomena may be observed that could be associated with the view that behavior is a kind of product of the brain or nervous system. In that phase the Anlage (plan) of the nervous system is still nothing more than a simply structured tube with outgrowing branches that represent future nerves. Many people nowadays therefore consider embryonic existence as purely a matter of biological growth, differentiation and metabolism of cells and tissues. Functioning or existing psychologically is out of order.

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