Tragically absent-minded

Hilzoy has a couple of posts commenting on an article in the Washington Post about parents that accidentally forget their kids and leave them locked in cars, often leading to tragic results. The article itself is heart-breaking, so keep that in mind if you choose to read it. Both of her posts are worth reading.

Some thoughts... From the article itself:
Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida and a consultant to the veterans hospital in Tampa.


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."


"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."
Having let the dog out, then gotten distracted by some mundane task or another, only to discover the dog waiting patiently by the door some time later, I can see how easily this can happen. It seems so utterly inconceivable that this could happen to good parents, but it may be an easier mistake to make than most of us would like to admit.

Hilzoy makes an unrelated, but powerful observation in her second post. Speaking of the incredibly harsh and ugly things said about the parents who must live with the awful weight of their irrevocable mistake:
The article goes on to quote a psychologist who says, basically, that these people are defending themselves against the thought that they might be similarly vulnerable, which sounds right. But I still ask myself: who are these people who, having read about a complete stranger whose character is unknown to them, feel compelled to write comments like these?

After all, it's not as though there was some reason why they had to pronounce on Mr. Harrison's character. No: they were just reading the paper, and for some reason they felt that they just had to write these things. And they didn't just stick to the facts; they leapt to conclusions about who he was and why he did what he did. If I felt like emulating them, I might think: these are the sorts of people who lie awake at night nursing grievances, running over and over various slights in their mind, thinking of all the things they could have said to really put X in his or her place.

Anyone who has ever gotten into an argument online will recognize this kind of behavior. There is something insidious about the anonymity and rapidity of the Internet that can bring out the very worst in people. Using a screen name and some free time, people can say things to other people that they would never in a million years have either the effrontery or courage to say to someone's face. I try (to varying degrees of success) to keep my commentary civil, even when heated, but the phenomenon Hilzoy describes is wide-spread and easy to play into.

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