The search for blame

This is the worst thing I have read in a long, long time.  (Warning:  safe for work, but maybe not safe for parents).  I don't even have kids, and I can't imagine how I could survive the pain of having left my kid in a car to die.  I'm pretty sure I'd at least seriously consider suicide.

The worst part about it is that if the article is to be believed, it's not just something that happens to bad, inattentive parents.  It can happen to anyone if they are stressed and distracted enough, because when we're driving, our brains go on autopilot.

"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."

Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida and a consultant to the veterans hospital in Tampa. He's here for a national science conference to give a speech about his research, which involves the intersection of emotion, stress and memory. What he's found is that under some circumstances, the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center can be held hostage to a competing memory system, a primitive portion of the brain that is -- by a design as old as the dinosaur's -- inattentive, pigheaded, nonanalytical, stupid.

Diamond is the memory expert with a lousy memory, the one who recently realized, while driving to the mall, that his infant granddaughter was asleep in the back of the car. He remembered only because his wife, sitting beside him, mentioned the baby. He understands what could have happened had he been alone with the child. Almost worse, he understands exactly why.

The human brain, he says, is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.

Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.

Ordinarily, says Diamond, this delegation of duty "works beautifully, like a symphony. But sometimes, it turns into the '1812 Overture.' The cannons take over and overwhelm."

By experimentally exposing rats to the presence of cats, and then recording electrochemical changes in the rodents' brains, Diamond has found that stress -- either sudden or chronic -- can weaken the brain's higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia. He's seen the same sort of thing play out in cases he's followed involving infant deaths in cars.

"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 no one can bring themselves to believe this--indeed, I guarantee that this comment section will fill up with people proclaiming that they never forgot their kids, that they never could forget their kids.  Every single person profiled in the article, of course, would have said the same thing right up to the point where they did. 

We have a phenomenal need to believe we are in control.  I experienced this when I was unemployed.  I'd been laid off from a management consulting firm at the same time as my entire associate class, none of us having worked a day for the firm.  I couldn't return to my pre-MBA professional life, because that life had involved tech consulting, the only industry then doing worse than management consulting.  It was the middle of a recession--I was almost-hired for three different positions, only to be told there was a hiring freeze. But time and again, I, and every other unemployed person I knew, encountered friends and strangers who were determined to prove to us that our lack of employment was somehow our fault.  If only we had tried harder to find a new job, we would have found one--because, you see, if it really was that hard to find a job, that would be pretty terrifying, so therefore, it must not be that hard to find a job.

But the belief that you cannot possibly leave your kids in a car seat on a warm day is very dangerous to your kids.  It is a virtual certainty that someone who read that article, and said to himself "That's BS--I could never leave my kid in a parked car"--will leave their kid in a parked car.  It is the people who are afraid of it, who think that they could do the unthinkable, who are most likely to avoid that fate.