Every summer, the same terrible reports arrive. Infants and toddlers, inadvertently left in the backseat of a car, die of heatstroke.
Last week, the news came from Florida; the week before, it happened in Virginia and in Georgia. For many observers, such incidents seem like the result of irresponsible parenting. But as brain scientists who investigate memory failure, we have learned that the picture is considerably more complex.
Now, with temperatures projected to hover at or above 100 degrees in St. Louis for the next week, it’s more important than ever to understand the nature of these tragedies. And the terrifying truth is that even the most dedicated among us are capable of making an awful mistake.
Indeed, while researching our 2007 book, “Prospective Memory: An Overview and Synthesis of an Emerging Field,” we realized that many parents who have experienced such loss were in fact smart, devoted and loving guardians. They never believed that such a thing could happen to them, or to their children.
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These tragedies are entirely avoidable. But the first and most important step is to recognize that all of us are susceptible. The problem is not bad parents. The problem is that most people don’t have a good understanding of their own memory systems — and even less of the factors that cause such systems to fail.
Imagine, for a moment, that your spouse has asked you to deliver your infant to daycare. This is not part of your regular routine, but you agree. You strap the child into her car seat. You playfully talk with her until she falls asleep.
But then, your mind turns to other matters. You start thinking about work and the tasks that await your arrival. Absorbed by your thoughts, you fall back onto what psychologists call habit memory. You follow your regular route, park in your regular spot, walk to your regular workspace.
Many good parents have done just this, with tragic results. Since 1998, more than 900 children left in vehicles have died of heatstroke, according to noheatstroke.org. On average, 37 children die each year. Ten have died so far this year.
Two principal factors contribute to this situation. First, the human brain is easily distracted. Thoughts that seem to be in the forefront of our minds can be lost in seconds, replaced with a new thought, a new demand, a new concern. How many times have you intended to place a phone call but found yourself diverted by other events?
Second, in the absence of external cues, prospective memory —the brain system charged with remembering actions that we intend to perform in the future — is highly vulnerable to forgetting. And once your child has fallen asleep, that strong external cue, the one reminding you to stop at daycare, is no longer present. Indeed, since the 1980s, when safety experts began encouraging parents to put car seats in the back of the car, the number of infant deaths due to heatstroke has tripled.
What the brain requires in these situations is a good external cue, something to help you remember that today, your child is in the backseat.
So, what can you do? A few simple ideas:
• Place something that you will need, like your briefcase or cell phone, in the backseat next to the child.
• Place something salient that will remind you of the child, like a diaper bag or blanket, in the front seat where you can see it.
• Better yet, put the child’s sock on the inside door handle.
People sometimes think that a task is so important that they couldn’t possibly forget it. But this misunderstands how our memory works. Remembering to do something that you don’t do every day actually poses a complex mental challenge. And simply trying to monitor that intention, to keep it in the front of your mind, is both cognitively demanding and prone to failure.
But setting a simple cue is a way of re-engineering your environment. It allows you to retrieve your intention from long-term memory and return it to your sphere of attention.
Your children will thank you for it.
Gilles Einstein is emeritus professor of psychology at Furman University. Mark McDaniel is professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and principal investigator in the Memory and Complex Learning Laboratory.