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From the Hindu religious epic, the Mahabharata, says one of the warriors learns a battle tactic hearing his father speaking, while he is still in the womb.

Keeping the religious aspect out of this, my question is whether such detailed learning is possible or proven?

Wikipedia summary of this episode in the Mahabharata

As an unborn child in his mother's womb, Abhimanyu learned the knowledge of entering the deadly and virtually impenetrable Chakravyuha (see Wars of Hindu Mythology) from Arjuna, his father. The epic explains that he overheard his Arjuna talking about this with his wife Subhadra from the womb. Arjuna explains to Subhadra in detail, the technique of attacking and escaping from various vyuhas (an array of army formation) such as Makaravyuha, Kurmavyuha, Sarpavyuha etc. After explaining all the vyuhas, he explains about the technique of cracking Chakravyuha. Arjuna explains to her how to enter the Chakryavyuha. When he was about to explain how to exit from the Chakravyuha, he realises that Subhadra is asleep and stops expounding on the Chakravyuha further. As a result, the baby Abhimanyu in the womb did not get a chance to learn how to come out of it.

  • Anecdotally, when my wife was pregnant we had a mischievous cat named Chaos. After our son was born, he would cry if we raised our voices saying anything but "Chaos!". – David Thornley Jun 11 '11 at 1:37
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I highly doubt that, especially because of the well-known condition called Childhood Amnesia.

From Assumptions of infantile amnesia: are there differences between early and later memories?

Most adults are able to provide few, if any, reports of autobiographical memories from the first years of life. Early memories that do exist have been characterised as highly emotional, containing an abundance of perceptual as opposed to propositional information, and more often in the third than the first person perspective.

From Oh Where, Oh Where Have Those Early Memories Gone? A Developmental Perspective on Childhood Amnesia

Whereas memories of many past experiences seemingly come and go, there is a period of life from which adults reliably fail to recall much if anything at all. Well over 100 years ago, Miles (1893) published the first account in a psychological journal of the phenomenon that would come to be known as infantile amnesia or childhood amnesia: the relative paucity among adults of verbally accessible memories from the first 3-4 years of life. The phenomenon was subsequently amended with the observation that from the ages of 3 to 7 years, adults have fewer memories than would be expected, based on forgetting alone (e.g., Pillemer & White, 1989; Wetzler & Sweeney, 1986). The observation is one of the most replicable in the literature: Whether tested in 1893 or 1999 (West & Bauer, 1999), among adults in Western cultures, the average age of earliest memory is age 3 to 3½ years.

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    Having a memory isn't necessary for learning something. – Christian May 20 '11 at 13:16
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Recent evidence shows memory for in utero (prenatal) experiences is expressed as conditioned response, most likely from statistical learning. These experiences show that newborns respond to the mother’s voice and the prosaic patterns music or passages, but this leans more towards a set of response preferences(1). It maybe possible that some experiences in the womb may be retained however there currently is no evidence that it is anything other than statistical learning. As a side note adults or at least people 13 years or older in a recent study have shown that people can access memories as far back as 31.25 months on average, the earlier figure of 3-4 years is based on a summation of studies over the last 100 years on adults, research participants typically provide memories in written format in group administrated tasks(2).

(1) DeCasper,A.J.,& Spence, M.J. (1991) Auditory mediated behavior during prenatal period: A cognitive view. (2) Peterson,C. (2010) Infantile amnesia and gender: does the way we measure it matter?

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