We’ve all seen the gut-wrenching headline: “Child dies after overheating in car.” And it’s likely, as parents ourselves or not, we’ve all had some negative reaction to this type of news and wondered how could a caregiver of any sort forget that a child was still buckled into the back of the car and just leave them there?
About 37 children die of overheating in a car annually in the U.S. and of those, more than half are unintentionally forgotten by their caregiver. The harsh reality — that anyone can forget a child in this type of situation — is based in science.
As Quartz reported elast year, “this deadly lapse is triggered by a neurological quirk that can and does happen to anyone, regardless of competence, intelligence, education, gender, age, or any other demographic marker. If you have a brain, a routine, and stress, you are capable of forgetting a child in a car.”
University of South Florida psychology professor and long-time researcher of the topic David Diamond has labelled the neurobiological problem “forgotten baby syndrome.” In his studies, he’s shown how brain memory systems both work together and compete against one another.
The hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex cooperate at a high level to help individuals get through all the complexities of their day (drop off the pup at the groomers, pick up Jane from preschool, stop at the grocery store, collect the pup again, head home). The basal ganglia and the amygdala, which respectively control habit-based behaviours and emotional processing, can, under stress or unexpected situations, throw a wrench into that schedule. The individual may become preoccupied and focused on an immediate stressor, and simply drive right by the grocery store, or, in one of the worst-case scenarios, stop to pick up the bread and bananas, but forget Jane is in the backseat.
In a country where there seems to be a tech answer for most any problem, there hasn’t yet been one for this. (There are a few in development.) But the bigger issue may be that, as Quartz notes, research suggests that people won’t buy products that could save their children’s lives in these types of situations because they do not believe that they would ever make this type of mistake.
It was the topic of a story that won Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. And it was a topic that was close to his heart — because as he wrote in a blog that accompanied his Post article, 25 years earlier he had been driving one day to his then-job at the Miami Herald, pulled into the parking lot, and as he searched for a space, heard his 2-year-old daughter say something to him from behind.
“Until that moment,” he wrote, “I’d had no memory at all that she was in that car.”
His daily, habitual schedule had deviated that morning – he wasn’t Molly’s usual driver to daycare. And he can’t recall what had him stressed or distracted, but the situation has haunted him his whole life.
“What I retain of that moment,” wrote Weingarten, “is the indelible memory of staring slack-jawed at the little girl in the backseat, and feeling a powerful rush of physical nausea. This was Miami in the summer. Molly would not have survived fifteen minutes in that car.”