That Could Never Happen to Me

When the warm weather comes around, a lot of us come out of hibernation to enjoy outdoor pursuits. Bikes and picnic baskets appear, and everyone just seems happier. For some it is a new beginning. For others it is a painful reminder of a tragic event. Although most people think it could never happen to them, it can and it might.

“The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.”

Compassion or Anger

I am talking about forgetting a child in the car to die in the heat. When people read headlines like this they often have one of two reactions – compassion or anger. I understand the angry response because I used to feel that way too, until I had children myself. We assume the parent is irresponsible, that they prioritize their cell phone over their child, that there clearly has to be something wrong with them. But if we know a bit more about how memory works, we might have more compassion for these parents.

In this Pulitzer prize-winning article on the subject, David Diamond, professor of molecular physiology states, “Memory is a machine,” he says, “and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”

The Hierarchy of the Brain

How can this be? It is possible because of the way the brain works. There is a certain hierarchy if you will. The prefrontal cortex is the thinking and analyzing part of your brain. Then we have the hippocampus, which primarily stores immediate memories, followed by the basal ganglia, which is the part that we use as an autopilot. For example, as you are driving your usual familiar route to work, the basal ganglia is operating the car while the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are remembering what tasks you have to tackle when you get there and figuring out how you’re going to approach them.

This hierarchy exists for a reason. Imagine if we had to consciously think about and remember how to do everything. If so, just getting up in the morning would look something like this. The alarm goes off and you have to try to remember what that sound is and what it means. When you decide it means you have to get up, you have to remember how to do that. Um, I think I have to roll over towards the edge of the bed. Which side is that again? Oh yeah, the right side. Now what? I think I have to swing my legs over the side. How do I do that again? Um, I have to bend my hips, then bend my knees, then…..

I think you get the picture. In a typical day your basal ganglia is responsible for dealing with the majority of your actions. If not, our minds would be so cluttered we would never get anything done.

Hijacked by the Autopilot

In cases of forgetfulness, the over-ride function of the higher centres is weakened, usually due to undue stress and fatigue. This allows the autopilot basal ganglia to take over. If that particular morning involves a change in the usual routine you have to consciously remember that. However, if the system is stressed, it switches into autopilot mode on the ride to work and you get hijacked by your basal ganglia, forgetting what the change in routine was.

If any of the following have happened to you, then you have been hijacked by your basal ganglia:

  • You are worried about something stressful happening at work and when you arrive at the office you don’t remember how you got there (did I stop at that last red light?)
  • You are thinking about the thousand things you have to do this evening and you forget to stop for milk on the way home even though you reminded yourself to do so when you left the parking lot at work
  • Your spouse was injured last night and you are worried. At work at 10:00 you realize you completely forgot that 8:00 specialist appointment that you have been waiting on for a year

I think we can all relate to these scenarios. We’re human, right? And when under stress we rely even more on our autopilot mechanisms to get us through the day. The brain is made to do this for our own sanity.

The Perfect Storm of Circumstances

In cases of accidental death by hyperthermia when a child is left in a hot car, there are almost always circumstances (almost always in multiples) that were out of the ordinary that day such as something stressful happening right as the parent was driving by the daycare, parents switching drop-off days, a sleepless night, etc. When these things happen all at once, the basal ganglia take over. The parent drives right by the daycare because it’s not their usual day to do drop-off, goes to work, and goes inside believing that their partner has left the baby at the daycare.

“‘The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant,’ he said. ‘The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted — such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back — it can entirely disappear.’”

But you would NEVER forget a child in the car you say? Well science says you most certainly could. The thing is, to the brain, picking up milk on the way home and the child in the back seat of the car are the same thing. They are just something to remember. And when push comes to shove in the brain, as stressful things are happening and you are overtired (and let’s face it, what parent of a young child isn’t?), the autopilot basal ganglia takes over and drives you unthinkingly to work. Literally unthinkingly.

It Could Have Happened to Me

I am fortunate to never have forgotten my children in the car when they were too young to speak up, but I know for a fact that I could have. When our children were younger, I had moments of utter panic after having arrived at work momentarily unsure if I had dropped off at the daycare or not. In that instant you literally CANNOT remember if you stopped or not. How could I forget a child??????? What kind of parent am I? It is the worst feeling in the world as you run out to the car to make sure. It didn’t happen to me but I know in my heart with absolute certainty that it could have. It could have and it does happen to good people all the time.

Now some of you will read this and still think that it could never happen to you. Why would anyone still think that way even in the face of neuroscience telling us otherwise? Perhaps because it’s easier to assume that parents who have forgotten their children in cars are irresponsible or defective in some way, rather than to face the terrifying prospect that horrible things happen to good people despite their best efforts.

So next time you read the headline, remember that you don’t know the circumstances surrounding that particular family on that particular day. Neuroscience tells us that no matter how attentive and loving a parent is it could happen to them, so please have some compassion. They are hurting enough already.


P.S. The folks at NASA invented an inexpensive, simple to install device that would beep when the ignition was turned off if a child was in the back seat. Sadly it never made it to the shelves. Why? Because market research said no one would buy it since no one thinks they need it. Because it could never happen to me.


If you would like to read the full text of the article quoted above, click here.

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