With the recent heat wave across much of North America there have been more tragic cases of children and pets left in hot cars. I’m not going to begin to address the 18% of cases in which caregivers who have done it intentionally, but rather the people that have simply forgotten they had their children with them, and by accident, horrific accident, have left them in vehicles. There is a lot of blame being thrown around, but is it legitimate? Couldn’t this happen to the most well-intentioned parent?

I don’t think it’s fair to assume any parent who has made the mistake of forgetting their child intended harm to their child or is somehow less intelligent or caring than another parent. Didn’t British Prime Minister David Cameron forget his eight year old daughter in a restaurant?

The majority of children left behind are under two, small and silent, strapped in a car seat. Unless they make noise or move,  it would be easy to miss them if a driver didn’t know a child was there. Take as an example a car that was stolen and later abandoned when a child was found in the back seat.

But in the cases I’m referring to, the driver did know, so what can cause someone to forget something, or rather someone, so important??

I recently picked up a book in my local library’s features section, called “The Overflowing Brain – Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory” by Dr. Torkel Klingberg, Ph.D., M.D. How the brain works has long been an interest of mine; my B. Sc. in biology makes a little more sense as I now apply it to organizing and productivity. In looking more closely at how the brain works, we can find both reasons why accidents like this happen and more importantly devise strategies to help avoid them in the future.

In many cases, forgetting boils down a combination of what we aim to focus our attention on or ‘controlled attention’, distractions and the limits of our working memory. Dr. Klingberg defines working memory as “our ability to remember information for a limited period of time, usually a matter of seconds.” The capacity of working memory is thought to be limited by convergence in the flow of information during working memory tasks, hence the need to switch from one task to another, a bit like switching between applications on my ipad, versus running several applications simultaneously as I can on my PC. That said, it’s then possible for a new piece of information to supplant an existing piece in our working memory, thereby derailing us and causing us to forget. Without a trigger to remind us of the first piece of information, the thought is simply gone.

In many cases the consequences are not dire. For example, you might find yourself going down to the basement storage room to stand there looking blankly at the shelves wondering what you went for. Likely in the midst of completing the task you were focusing on, a distraction of some kind surfaced, a noise that you got curious about, a pile of things you remind yourself to put away, tripping on a loose rug that you think you had better attend to, and voila, you lose the thought you were holding so tenously in your mind.

If you repeat a task the same way often enough, you are likely to execute the steps without thinking about each one specifically. In fact, you stop applying thought and run on ‘auto-pilot’. I can think of a few personal examples in addition to the story I shared in a recent post:

a) I offered to drive colleagues to a restaurant for lunch. The route began the same way as my drive home. Even with three other people in the car to remind me where I was headed, I turned on my signal light and headed for the highway as if it was the end of the day.

b) The gas station I normally use recently switched to pre-payment by credit card. I now have to enter a credit card, select an authorization amount, enter my PIN, and press YES when asked if I would like a receipt. All these additional steps threw me off my routine and I forgot to close the fuel door….three times! It took that long until my working memory was able to hold onto the fact that I needed to check the door was closed before I left. Now my new routine is ‘wired in’…meaning my brain has developed to include the change.

c) Leaving the key in the front door after we moved into our home seven years ago.

These are all harmless, if somewhat embarrassing, examples of what can happen when a routine is disrupted. But as evidenced, the consequences of forgetting can sometimes be disastrous.

So how to avoid forgetting? Here are four tried and true tips:

1. Make a checklist and allow time to use it
Many of us resort to lists as aids to our working memory, for example: a list of items to pick up from the grocery store, a packing list for travel, a list of things to remember to do before going on vacation. With lists we can separate the planning from the execution and be more confident we aren’t forgetting anything.

2. Plant an audio or visual reminder
Sometimes all we need to remember something we are meant to do or take with us is a cue or trigger. To remember to return an item to the store, leave it on the front door handle so you can’t go out the door without it. Set an alarm to remember to call a client at an agreed upon time, or risk being immersed in work and missing the appointment.

3. Develop a habit or routine
While this takes time, it is a wise investment for recurring activities, for both efficiency and effectiveness. Consciously develop a process to follow, and think about it every time you execute the action. After a while, you will find yourself completing the activity without having to think about every step. Driving your car is a good example of an activity that becomes automatic when at first it took every focused thought. Parallel parking might still require a high level of controlled attention because of the complexity of the manoeuver and the low frequency of execution.

4. Double check when you are distracted
Distracted thinking can come from external stimuli such as unexpected sights and sounds, but just as often from internal conditions like lack of sleep, illness, stress, and problem solving. If you know you are suffering from a distraction, be increasingly vigilant as you go through your routines. Whenever I have to drop my kids off on the way to a client, I try to take a few quiet minutes to prepare everything I need before we leave, and even load it into the car. At the door, there are so many distractions that it is easy to forget something – even something I planned to take that is sitting right at the entrance.


Ways to remember your child in the back seat of the car
Here are four practical things to do to avoid leaving children in the back seat of your car:

a) Always check the back seat
Make a habit of always checking the back seat before you walk away from your car. It’s a good time to check for valuables left out in the open, too, to avoid theft. It can be a good habit to check your back seat before you enter your car too, especially in parking lots.

b) Use your normal routine to remind you of a change
Place something you are already in the habit of taking with you – your wallet, phone or briefcase – on the back seat with your child.

c)  Add a visual cue that your child is in the car
Place a reminder of your child on the front seat beside you to cue you that your child is in the car.

d)  Engage an accountability partner
Ask your childcare provider to call if your child has not arrived within a few minutes of your scheduled time.

Understanding the brain works, awareness of its limitations, and a dedication to implementing strategies to support those limitations will help avoid similar tragedies occurring.

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