The Spiritual embryo – A chapter from the Absorbent mind

Maria Montessori introduces the concept of “spiritual embryo” explaining that the newborn has to do a psychological work as the embryo did a physical work. She insists on the word “formative” and calls the postnatal period, a “formative period” which it makes the baby in a kind of “spiritual embryo”.

So, the man has 2 embryonic periods: one antenatal, like other animals, which included a physical work; one postnatal that only human species has it.

The human’s baby has a prolonged infancy. That’s the difference between human and other species. Montessori insists on that difference between all other animals and humans. For her, it’s a barrier between species. She said (p60) “His appearance on earth was a jump in life: the starting point for new destinies”.

Then, she explains what constitutes another species. It’s always a difference, not a likeness. It’s something new, original.

She gives the example of mammals and birds compared to dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs have always abandoned theirs eggs. On the contrary, the birds take care of their eggs. And the mammals do more; they have the baby in their body until he’s ready to be born.

And the human, part of the mammal’s species, has something new: a double embryonic life.

After having explained the concept of spiritual embryo, Maria Montessori extend that spirituality to the man himself. For her (p61), following the Indian philosophy, “the whole man develops within a kind of spiritual halo”. His work is linked to his spirit, to his intelligence.

Like she said (p61) “if the nature of man is to be ruled by a spiritual halo which enfolds him, if he depends on this and all his behaviour derives from it”, then we must take care of baby’s mental life and not just his body.

Next, she looks at how we are in relation with our environment and 2 new concept: “mneme” and “absorbent mind”.

The child has a different relation to his environment than adults.

Adults remember, admire their environment, they can think about it. But the child absorbs it. This vital kind of memory is called by Sir Percy Nunn, the “Mneme”.

To understand that concept, she gives us the example of how we learn our mother tongue. The child learns to speak not consciously, not because he has studied it. He absorbs his language. That’s a phenomenon totally different that a mnemonic activity.

Maria Montessori said (p62)

“There is in the child a special kind of sensitivity which lead him to absorb everything about him, and it is this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life”.

The first period of child’s life is a period of adaptation. He adapts himself to his own environment, to his culture, to the country where he lives. Maria Montessori distinguishes that adaptation from the one of the adult.

If an adult lives abroad, like the missionaries for example, he will never adapt himself like he did when he was a baby or young child. He will never be as happy as he is in his own country. She insists on the love of his own country than man has. “He feels he belongs to this country” (p63). Here again, she gives a very speaking example about Italian workers, home sick when they had to work out of their village.

This absorbent form of mind shapes the child and adapts him to any kind of social order, climate or country. The child absorbs the customs and habits and local manners of the land in which he lives, until he has formed the typical individual of his place and time. Theses acquisitions are not natural or inborn.

Maria Montessori gives an example of that when she explained the Indian traditions that we can respect as an adult but not really understand totally. The cow is sacred in India. We can respect that veneration, but we still eat cows.

These kinds of beliefs and feelings form an integral part of ourselves. What makes a man a typical Indian, a typical Italian, a typical American is formed during his infancy, in virtue to the Mneme.

Every personal trait absorbed by the child is fixed forever. It’s part of him. The Mneme creates the individual’s special characteristics and keeps them alive in him.

This faculty of adaptation explains how the child is adapted to his time. One adult from ancient times could not live in the world of our days. But a child could.

Maria Montessori said (p65)

“The true function of infancy, in the ontogenesis of the man, is an adaptive one”.

The child is a link between the epochs of history, the levels of civilization.

Because of this absorbent mind, because of the Mmene, if we want to change the world, we must do it through the child. That’s the little ones who build the mankind and they can do it only with the materials we give them.

But for Montessori, the spirituality begins before birth.

She gives the example of a premature baby born at 7 months and already able to function and to have a psychic life.

And if we agree that psychic life has started before the birth, so the birth is highly important. We can suppose that the birth’s process could be a kind of trauma for the baby.

Psychologists speak of the “difficult adventure of birth” for the child who suffers without being able to protest and who cries out only when his agony and work is over.

The newborn is forced to adapt to a totally new environment when he was used to the womb.

This moment is called “birth terror”. The child feels the fear, not a conscious fear but still is. He is unaware of what’s happened.

There must exist ways to help the child through that process, to help him to adapt smoothly to the world.

The mother’s instinct is there for that. For example, the mother tends to press her baby tightly to her chest. That protects him from the light.

But our instincts are not as strong as the animal’s instincts. When the child is born, he’s almost treated more like an inanimate object than a human being because of the habit we have of thinking the child has no mental life.

For Maria Montessori, the period around the birth must be considered separately. She looks at how the nature provides for this period in mammals.

In mammals, the female isolates herself from the herd to give birth. She remains apart with her young to let him adapt himself to his surroundings. In this phase of isolation, the little animal comes by degree to behave like others of its species.

When the mother rejoins the herd, the young animal is ready to be part of the community.

The animals are equipped by heredity. The right behaviours for each species are pre-established.

And, even when domesticated, the animals, like cats and dogs, keep their old instincts. She says (p70) “the animal’s racial instincts awaken in the first days of its life”.

Something similar must happen with man. After birth, that’s a kind of awakening of potential powers. These powers will have to direct the huge creative work that the child must do to become a man. The child will experience nebulous urges without form yet charged with potential energy. Maria Montessori calls that urge “nebulae”.

When the animals are equipped by heredity, the man must acquire all the behaviours, movements and so forth during the general unfolding of his social life. He’s not born with the practices of his social group. He must absorb them from outside himself.

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As she said (p71)

“the vital task of infancy is this work of adaptation which takes the place of the hereditary behaviour patterns present in the animal embryos”.

Now, she invites us to study the development of the child as “a general mechanism” of human life.

When he’s born, the child is far from finished. He must build himself up until he becomes a complex human being.

She uses Coghill’s discovery to demonstrate the importance of the mental side in human development. Coghill has shown that the organs are formed after the nervous centres, in readiness for their work.

The building up of the intelligence is the first thing to occur.

The child’s growth consists of many parts which develop following a fixed order. They obey a common law. She gives examples of how the cranium complete his growth, how the spinal nerves are myelinated and so fourth… theses facts show successive levels of maturity in physical development. By becoming mature, the motor organs can become commanded by the mind. First, the child makes indeterminate movements. After, he gains experience with his environment. Then, it’s become coordinate and finally he will use them for its purposes.

He learns a variety of movements. He could be a craftsman, an acrobat, a sportsman… But none of these skills is innate. It’s always a matter of practice, of experience in action. She says (p73) “it is the man himself who produces his own perfectionnent”.

What about that make up in the children?

First, we must know that if the child moves when he’s physically mature, his mental side doesn’t depend on this. She repeats that the mental side develops first.

When the organs are ready, the mind uses them. That leads to further mental development. But if a child is prevented from using his body when he’s ready, this child’s mental development is obstructed.

During the post-embryonic period, all the babies unfold in the same way, according to the same laws. Like they did during the embryonic life. They might become a genius, an artist, a leader or someone quite ordinary. But we can never predict this later development.

Here, she resumes her ideas. During the post-embryonic period, we can help life to unfold, in the same way for all. That’s a period of adaptation. That’s the mental side which develops first. And if it’s done properly, the child will be able to develop his individual capacities.

So, there is only one way of educating and treating child from birth.

Like she says (p75):

“we can only speak of one method; that which follows the natural unfolding of man”.

And for Maria Montessori, only nature can dictate the educational method to be followed, to satisfy the needs and laws of life.

And the child shows us his needs by his spontaneous manifestations and progress.

We can see his happiness, his concentration and his constant freely chosen responses.

She insists (p75):

“our one duty is to learn from him on the spot, and to serve him, as best we can”.

She makes a detour by the psychoanalyses theory from Freud to speak about the birth-trauma.

The trauma of birth causes the child to develop in abnormal ways. There is “regression”. That means that the newborn, unconsciously, wants to go back, instead of to go forward, in his development.

There are several symptoms of regression. Too much sleep is one of these. Freud says that sleep is “a kind of refuge to which the child retires, an expression of the revulsion he feels toward life and the world”.

Another symptom may be the child in tears when he wakes up. He seems to be frightened to live again that terrible moment.

Clinginess and high timidity are symptoms as well. She describes in detail the clingy child.

All these symptoms happen during the first period of life and they become part of the mneme. So, unfortunately, she says (p77) “they become graven on the personality itself”. And she continues (p78) “this is the great danger of mankind”.

She wants to stress us about this danger of traumatic birth and the risk of regression for the baby and later, for the adult.

Now that we are aware of that, she invites us to review the protective measures that all the mammals must follow to take care of their young. In the animals kingdom, the mother’s care is connected with an awakening in the newborn of the general instincts of the species.

For the human being, something similar happens. There is an awakening of potentialities in the child.

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On this basis, Maria Montessori has developed the concept of “nebulae” which means, here:

 “the creative energies which will guide the child to absorb from his environment”.

She borrows that concept to the astronomy field. In astronomy, “nebulae” is where the heavenly bodies take their origin. It’s composed by particles, so far apart with no real consistency, but they form something visible when seen from a great enough distance.

Just as this nebula, with the passing of time, in the child, we see the slow emergence of something not hereditary, yet produced by an instinctive tendency which is hereditary.

To understand that concept, she gives the example of the language.

From the nebulae of language, the child receives stimuli and guidance for the formation in himself of his mother tongue. He becomes able to distinguish the sounds of spoken language from other sounds and noises which reach him. Then, he can incarnate the language he hears to perfection.

The nebulae does not contain the language itself but all the children all over the world learn their mother tongue in the same way.

To make it clear, she compares it with animals. When the newborn animal produces the perfect sound of its species, almost at once; the baby stays mute for a long time before being able to produce sound and then words and finally speaks the language spoken about him.

So, the child does not inherit a pre-established model for his language. He inherits the power of constructing a language by an unconscious activity of absorption. It’s what she has called here “the nebula of language”.

In the same way, it’s true for all the mental acquisitions, like social skills for example.

Here, she wants to clarify one point. The nebulae is only use as a vehicle for description. Maria Montessori doesn’t see our mind in an anatomic view.

For her (p80), the mind is

“a dynamic whole which transforms its structure by active experience obtained from its surroundings”.

The mind is guided by an energy of which the nebulae are differentiated and specialised kinds of stages.

And, in the case of language, if the nebula doesn’t function, the child will not speak despite having perfectly normal hearing and speaking organs. For her, it would be interesting to examine what had taken place during the first weeks of life.

Theses ideas will explain many facts and, in particular, those touching adaptability to society. She wants to explain what happens if the child doesn’t have that vital urge to guide him to make his social adaptation. In that case, he does not absorb anything from his environment or makes an imperfect absorption. Then, he can not absorb the custom, religions, and so forth from his social group. The result is a person out of place who presents many regressive symptoms. She asks the question “do we know why a delay or a lack of the awakening of the creative sensitivities could happen?”

At that time, they didn’t have any answer. She gives us one case that she knows. It was a young man incapable of discipline, not able to study. A difficult boy with a bad character. He was good looking, healthy and intelligent. But, he had suffered during his first two weeks of life a severe malnutrition, so severe that his face was reduced to a skeleton. The wet nurse who was sent to nurse him, called him “skinny”. After that, he developed normally, he became a strong child. But he was predestined to crime.

At the end, she resumes her principal ideas. She said (p82)

“The nebulae of sensitiveness direct the newborn babe’s mental development just as the genes condition the fecundated egg in the formation of the body”.

Due to that so important first period of life, we must take care of the newborn mental health as much as we take care of his body.

She finishes that chapter, saying (p82) “there must come into being a special code of rules, exacting, and precise, for the treatment of the child at birth, and in the first few days following birth”.

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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.