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Dr. David Diamond

Dr. David Diamond, a professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in cognitive and neural sciences, has done considerable research on the neuropsychology of how children are forgotten in cars. He has interviewed dozens of normal (loving and attentive) parents who reported they had lost awareness of the presence of their child in the car. It is difficult to understand how this phenomenon occurs, and far too easy to condemn people who, unknowingly and unintentionally, forget children in cars. He has found that this has occurred to people in all walks of life, including well educated and highly responsible people, including physicians, teachers, a judge, prosecutor, dentist, a daycare owner and university professors. Diamond has found that there are two common elements in these cases. First, the driver has changed a typical routine, such as driving straight from home to work, to modify the drive to include taking the child to daycare. However, during the drive, the brain habit memory system takes over, and in the process, suppresses the driver’s awareness of the plan to interrupt the drive and go to daycare. Second, a common element that enhances the dominance of the habit-based memory system is stress and a lack of sleep, two conditions that are very common in parents of young children. Once the parent or caretaker has lost awareness of the child in the car, they routinely go about their daily events, sometimes for an entire day’s work or during the later use of the car, without any awareness the child is in the car. The brain appears to create the false memory that their child is safe at the daycare. Indeed, many parents return to the daycare to retrieve their child, only to be told that the child did not arrive at daycare that day. These individuals are then horrified to learn that their child spent the day in their car, often with fatal consequences. Diamond emphasizes that these parents and caretakers suffer the trauma knowing that they caused the death of a child. He urges people to understand that although the brain is a magnificent machine, it is flawed in how it processes memory. We have technology all around us to compensate for the flaws in brain memory processing, such as calendar reminders of appointments and warning sounds to shut off headlights. It is therefore essential that we have technology to detect children left in cars so no child will die of heatstroke as a result of a catastrophic memory failure.

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