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Memory & Forgetting, Children & Love

A couple of articles lately that really hit home. Brink's "How to mend a broken heart" is simply excellent. Turns out that drug addiction may actually be a byproduct of love's existing circuitry, that a broken heart can medically kill people with something that looks a lot like a heart attack, and that simple pain relievers like Tylenol can help dull the pain of a breakup. Plus, how can you not love "The Museum of Broken Relationships"?

"Olinka and Drazen are artists, and after some time passed [beyond their breakup], they did what artists often do: they put their feelings on display.... Their collection of breakup mementos was accepted into a local art festival. It was a smash hit. Soon they were putting up installations in Berlin, San Francisco, and Istanbul, showing the concept to the world. Everywhere they went, from Bloomington to Belgrade, people packed the halls and delivered their own relics of extinguished love: "The Silver Watch" with the pin pulled out at the moment he first said, "I love you." The wood-handled "Ex Axe" that a woman used to chop her cheating lover's furniture into tiny bits. Trinkets that had meaning to only two souls found resonance with a worldwide audience that seemed to recognize the same heartache all too well."

Another article talked about a more profound kind of heartbreak, and a very different problem of memory. The Washington Post's 2009 piece "Fatal Distraction" is about something that really can happen to any parent, though we really don't like to think about it:

"Two decades ago, [death by hyperthermia] was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child... well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?"

Research suggests a very unsettling answer:

"Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida and a consultant to the veterans hospital in Tampa.... [he] 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.

....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.... 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.... "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, [emphasis mine] 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."

With horrifying results, if the forgotten thing is your child's quiet presence in your now-parked car. Often made worse by prosecutors with too little sense, which is the secondary subject of the article.

"There may be no act of human failing that more fundamentally challenges our society's views about crime, punishment, justice and mercy. According to statistics compiled by a national childs' safety advocacy group, in about 40 percent of cases authorities examine the evidence, determine that the child's death was a terrible accident - a mistake of memory that delivers a lifelong sentence of guilt far greater than any a judge or jury could mete out - and file no charges. In the other 60 percent of the cases, parsing essentially identical facts and applying them to essentially identical laws, authorities decide that the negligence was so great and the injury so grievous that it must be called a felony, and it must be aggressively pursued."

There are times when it should be, if there is any suggestion that anything more than mere forgetting is at work, or if it fits a pattern of serious neglect. Otherwise, it just makes a bad situation worse, wasting money to achieve no deterrence. And really, no justice either.

There's a simple technology fix, mind you. Unfortunately, it can't get manufactured, because no manufacturer can afford to be sued if it fails. So babies will die after pulling all of their own hair out, and we can all thank the damn tort lawyers for one more thing.

The other thing that was interesting about this cheap device, developed by some NASA scientists after a local tragedy, was the poor test-marketing results. Seems that very few people thought it could happen to them.

But it could. There are things like broken loves, that you want to forget, but can't. And there are things you must remember - but can't guarantee you will. The universe is an amazing place. Just not always a friendly one.

Absent technology, my recommendation? Make the autopilot work for you instead. Every time you get out of the car, even if your child isn't in it, open the door and physically feel the child's seat. Do it without fail enough times, and it becomes an autopilot sequence of its own, associated with the presence of that booster seat. Once the seat disappears, it will eventually extinguish, though you might feel kind of foolish for a while.

Then again, consider the possible alternative.

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