May. 29th, 2015

dreamer_easy: (snow kate)
(Been trying to get back to this for days!)

I'm reading a fascinating book called Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman. Weirdly, I came across not just an anecdote germane to yesterday's Thursday's posting about unclaimed bodies and medical research, but a bunch of relevant stuff about decision-making.

First, the anecdote, which Eagleman used to illustrate the idea that the brain has "circuits" which process short-term gain and loss, and others which process the long term. A university offered students $500 to leave their bodies to medical science. "It's an easy sell for the school: $500 now feels good, while death is inconceivably different." The detail which grabbed me was this: the students were given an ankle tattoo saying where to send their bodies after they'd died. Talk about a memento mori!

Second - well, first I need to explain the Trolley Problem, if you're not already familiar with it. (It's not a trick question, and you're not allowed to come up with clever solutions to get around it!)

You're standing on a railroad bridge beside a switch. Below, you see an out of control trolley hurtling towards five unsuspecting workers. You realise that if you throw the switch, the trolley will go down a different track - where there's only one unsuspecting worker. Do you throw the switch?

This time, there's only one track, and instead of the switch, there's a large stranger also standing on the bridge. You realise that if you push him off the bridge and onto the track, he'll be killed, but the trolley will be stopped and the workers will be saved. Do you push him off?

For the average brain, the first version is a rational problem - one life vs five lives - and logical decision making parts of the brain light up in a scanner if you ask the poor bugger in there to answer the question. But the second version is an emotional problem, and those brain bits light up. More variations on the puzzle led researchers to conclude that what switches on the emotional circuitry is when you have to touch (or imagine touching, at least) the other person.

As Eagleman points out, this was once pretty much our only way of killing someone - with our bare hands. He mentions a law professor who suggested implanting The Button inside a human being.

With me so far? Here's where we come back to the question of what to do with unclaimed bodies. I think the irate New Scientist letter-writer, who thought using them for medical research was obvious and couldn't believe than a "educated" person didn't agree, was judging the situation rationally. And I think I was judging it emotionally . Which is not to say my judgement was automatically wrong (think of the Button example) - just that it was proceeding from a different basis.

Perhaps I was even imagining touching the unclaimed body myself - or at least imagining touching it. It'd be interested to know if the letter-writer would change their opinion if they'd have to do the dissecting themselves. Come to think of it, does medical training and work inure people to that emotional response to touching bodies? If so, is that necessary for them to stay rational - or could it be bad for their (living) patients?


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