What we learn early in life as a young child, even as a late-stage fetus, often unknowingly guides our lives. Moreover, memories get encoded in our brains and remain there without us realizing that we have learned anything. Understanding the effect of this childhood learning is crucial to resolving your eating and other problems.

To comprehend the impact of our earliest learning, here’s an example of research about the fetus and music from an article entitled, “Study points to learning in the womb” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 11/3/13, p. 5A). It turns out that infants whose mothers listened to certain music in the final trimester of pregnancy showed an ability to identify the pieces when played again a few days after birth when monitored by brain scans. And there already have been studies which show the impact of a mother’s eating preferences on her newborn. It’s amazing how much our brains pick up without our realizing it, which brings me to the point of this blog.

I spend much of my clinical energy trying to convince clients that they were not born defective or unlovable; rather that the way they were mistreated, abused or neglected in childhood formed their negative view of themselves. Does the process of a fetal brain picking up melodies seem so dissimilar to a child’s brain absorbing what is said to or about the child repeatedly? Fetal learning is pre-conscious and childhood learning is unconscious. You may recall your father buying you your first bike, but not register exactly how he made you feel as if you’d never learn to ride it. You may remember the chocolate cake that Mom made for your fifth birthday party, but not that she didn’t eat a bite of it at the party and furtively polished off its remains in the kitchen after your friends and their parents had gone home.

When you learn without remembering (or knowing) that you’re learning, the process is called procedural learning (or memory) and it most frequently resides outside of conscious awareness. In the above examples, hearing repeatedly that you won’t be successful at something (or anything!) teaches you to have negative self-expectations, while watching Mom deny herself cake at the party then gorge on it afterwards, gives you a lesson in feeding yourself. If you want to change your behaviors—eating and otherwise—the big pay off is in understanding the erroneous messages you picked up in childhood that you still believe today which are deterring you from living a healthy life. What early learning is shaping your attitude toward food, weight, diets, your body, appearance, thinness, fatness, food shopping, or food preparation?