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Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Defense lawyers are increasingly calling upon the services of neuroscientists to give evidence excusing, or mitigating the guilt of, their clients. A recent case illustrates some of the risks of doing so, as well (perhaps) of the potential benefits to lawyers and their clients.

The case is a tragically common one: every year there are dozens of cases of severe harms to infants who are left in cars. In many of these cases, the parent has simply forgotten the baby is in the car. For instance, a US man forgot to drop his infant daughter at child care and left her in the car all day while he worked: she died of heat prostration. In this particular case, a mother forgot she had taken her five month old daughter with her to a take away restaurant, and therefore forgot to remove her from the car. She was charged with the manslaughter of the child.

The defense called on the services of David Diamond, a US neuroscientist. Diamond testified that the mother may have been suffering from ‘forgotten baby syndrome’.  The defendant would usually leave her daughter sleeping in her cot when she went to the restaurant. According to Diamond, when people perform habitual actions, they operate on auto-pilot. When in fact things are different, “‘the brain actually creates an alternative reality” that matches how things usually are when the person engages in a habitual action. Someone suffers from forgotten baby syndrome when they forget because they are guided by that alternative reality.

Now it is easy to mock these claims. In fact, they deserve mocking. ‘Forgotten baby syndrome’ is essentially a neuroscientifically gussied up way of describing someone forgetting their baby. If there is such a thing as forgotten baby syndrome, then there are equally good grounds for postulating forgotten car keys syndrome or forgotten anniversary syndrome. Dressing up everyday slips in scientific language doesn’t do much more than redescribe them.

But there is something to which Diamond is pointing us that is potentially mitigating, though we don’t really need the language of neuroscience to understand it. Good old common sense psychology can illuminate it just as well. Its this: when people perform a habitual action in circumstances that are slightly different from normal, if that difference doesn’t remain obvious to them as they continue to carry out the action they may carry it out in a way that is not in fact suitable, given how the circumstance differs. So the mother didn’t remove her daughter from the car because she didn’t normally need to, and there were no cues to suggest that continuing as she would habitually wasn’t appropriate in the changed circumstances.

Saying that, though, isn’t backing up the story with the authority of science. The mother was acquitted of manslaughter. There is no way of knowing, but Diamond’s testimony might have swayed the jury. We can expect that other lawyers will be willing to call on him, and other neuroscientists, in the future, in the hope that it will lead to better verdicts or shorter sentences for their clients. And that’s their job: we can hardly complain about that.

The risk, however, is that when neuroscientists dress up common sense in the language of neuroscience (perhaps in an attempt to dazzle the jury with the authority of science) they risk bringing the science into disrepute. Sometimes the explanation of why a person should be excused or blamed less will not be commonsensical. We want neuroscientists to be taken seriously when they offer explanations that genuinely call upon their expertise in these cases.  We should therefore hope that they don’t undermine their own authority by a too ready willingness to distort the science inappropriately.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. At risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I wonder whether there’s an explanation for Diamond’s assertion in terms of how US healthcare works. Describe something as a syndrome, and it becomes something that could be treated, and so something for which insurance’ll cough up, and something from which people like Diamond could benefit. Had he just said, “Naaah: she’s an idiot”, there’d be none of that. Diamond could disavow that motive – it’s a matter of the medical culture more than it is of one person’s behaviour in particular.

    I’ll take off my tinfoil hat soon, I promise.

    1. The hypothesis sounds plausible to me. An aside: we all should be conspiracy theorists as David Coady has argued.

    2. A few years ago, an ad agency did a series or radio ads for Golf Digest magazine. The ads were an intentional “joke” on mental health professionals who “invented” a disease to explain away symptoms. In the case of this ad, the announcer warned people who didn’t subscribe to Golf Digest that they might end up suffering from (ahem) FIRST HOLE ANXIETY.

      But, Golf Digest wasn’t the first publication to tackle this issue. ln the 19th Century, Mark Twain published a short article in the San Francisco Chronicle. It dealt with the first psychiatrist to open his practice in the Bay Area. Obviously tongue-in-cheek, Twain said he visited the psychiatrist – and the following conversation took place:

      Psych – How can I help you, sir?

      Twaln – Well, I’m a sailor and …

      Psych – (interrupting Twain) I can cure that.

  2. This is where having a RSS feed to something like Science Daily would help for once. Because there is research into habits, how they come about and how they persist that does indicate that when we form habits they move to a different part of the mind where we can automatically go through them and not have to “think” about them. So you were correct in pointing this out, but incorrect in that the science is starting to back this up, this is how we go through habits — without thinking about them.

    1. Some of the research:

      “Wood calls attention to the neurology of habits, and how they have a recognizable neural signature. When you are learning a response you engage your associative basal ganglia, which involves the prefrontal cortex and supports working memory so you can make decisions. As you repeat the behavior in the same context, the information is reorganized in your brain. It shifts to the sensory motor loop that supports representations of cue response associations, and no longer retains information on the goal or outcome. This shift from goal directed to context cue response helps to explain why our habits are rigid behaviors.

      There is a dual mind at play, Wood explains. When our intentional mind is engaged, we act in ways that meet an outcome we desire and typically we’re aware of our intentions. Intentions can change quickly because we can make conscious decisions about what we want to do in the future that may be different from the past. However, when the habitual mind is engaged, our habits function largely outside of awareness. We can’t easily articulate how we do our habits or why we do them, and they change slowly through repeated experience. “Our minds don’t always integrate in the best way possible. Even when you know the right answer, you can’t make yourself change the habitual behavior,” Wood says.”

      How we form habits, change existing ones
      Date: August 8, 2014
      Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology

    2. I am very familiar with the science of habit formation – I recently wrote a book about it. I don’t know what makes you think that I dissent from any of this science.

  3. Just a few thoughts on this. The psychiatric “bible” is called the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). You will not find “forgotten baby syndrome” within its pages because most psychiatrists feel it’s a “made up” disorder that is popularized by pundits and a minority of psychologists (like David Diamond) who have become the “go-to” guys for attorneys defending the parents of hot-car-death children. In short, “paid advocate$$$” for the defense.

    Consider this. If I was caught red-handed leaving my cat in a hot car – and if my cat died – I’d be arrested for animal abuse. And when I stood up in front of a judge, there would be no leniency given – even if I attempted to use a “forgotten pet syndrome” excuse. When “life” is at stake (human or otherwise), people are held to a higher level of responsibility. And to deal with irresponsibility, courts are left with two options for the irresponsible parent – a charge of “reckless enjdangerment” (if the baby lives) or “negligent homicide” (if the baby dies). This assumes that the life of a baby is more important in court than the life of a pet.

    One more concern. There are irresponsible parents who “forget” their babies and there are irresponsible parents who KNOWINGLY leave their babies in hot cars because they’re a “hassle” to deal with in a grocery store, a theater, or a (true) casino. If courts started accepting “forgetten baby syndrome” as a mitigating factor in cases of reckless endangerment or negligent homicide, how long would it be (assuming it hasn’t happened already) before slick lawyers and their paid psychologists started using the forgotten baby syndrome excuse ALL THE TIME – even for parents who knowingly left their babies in hot cars … and do we really want to open that Pandora’s box???

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