Science Behind Hot Car Deaths

In July in Phoenix, Arizona with temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees, the area saw the deaths of a 1-year-old found dead in a church parking lot and a 7-month-old who died while being cared for by his grandparents. Although still being investigated, both cases are thought to be accidental. These kinds of incidences, which happen all over the U.S. during the summer, are often dubbed as Forgotten Baby Syndrome. The cause of death in these cases is heatstroke, which is clinically defined as when a person’s body temperature exceeds 104 degrees Fahrenheit and their thermoregulatory mechanism is overwhelmed.

NoHeatStroke.org, a website run by the Department of Meteorology & Climate Science at San Jose State University reports that there’s been 702 reported heatstroke deaths of children left in cars from 1998 to March 2017. More than half, 54 percent, of 700 cases of hot car deaths identified from 1998 through the end of 2016 were incidences of Forgotten Baby Syndrome.

The Science Behind It

Dr. David Diamond, neuroscientist and professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of South Florida, promotes the scientific studies of the brain that prove Forgotten Baby Syndrome does in fact exist. He’s been studying the syndrome since 2004, and has served as an expert witness when parents face charges of manslaughter, murder, or child endangerment in these child vehicular heatstroke deaths.

Through his research, Dr. Diamond has developed a hypothesis as to how this unfolds. He explains that when there is competition between the brain’s “habit memory system” and its “prospective memory system”, the habit memory system takes over and Forgotten Baby Syndrome can occur.

According to Dr. Diamond, every day people have specific tasks and habits that when performed enough become routine. Once routine, these actions involve very little conscious thought and are governed by the part of the brain known as the motor cortex. Think about driving the same route each day to work or a place visited often taking the same route. The task can be accomplished with very little thought. Dr. Diamond explains that during this time motor memory is freed up to think about other things while performing the task.

In contrast is the part of the brain responsible for decision making, called the hippocampus, which controls the cognitive portion of the brain. Dr. Diamond has indicated that during a case of Forgotten Baby Syndrome, the motor memory part of the brain competes against the cognitive part of the brain, essentially overruling it.

For example, a person knows that on their trip home from work their spouse has asked them to stop at the grocery store and pick up a few items. They get in the car and begin to travel their normal route home only to arrive there and only remember their intended trip to the store when their spouse asks for the needed groceries. This phenomenon happens as a normal part of brain function and not because there is something wrong with the brain structure. Obviously, a case of Forgotten Baby Syndrome cannot compare to a missed trip to the store but the same memory principles apply.

How to prevent it?

Awareness is the first step in prevention of Forgotten Baby Syndrome as is understanding that it’s an involuntary cognitive response to stress and other factors. Many parents think that it can’t happen to them so they take no precautions at all. As more and more people start talking about Forgotten Baby Syndrome, more people become aware that this can happen to anyone at any time. Leaving something important in the back seat with the baby is a simple preventative step. Having a reminder call from someone to check in that the child was dropped off is another. Anything really can be used as a source of prevention that can save the child’s life.

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