Today in my neuroscience class I learned about neuroethics and the Trolley Problem. Then I lived my own version of it.
You’ve probably heard of the greatest would you rather of all time, also known as the Trolley Problem. It goes a little like this: a train or trolley or whatever is speeding down its tracks, but five people are strapped to the road. You can pull a lever to save the five people, but it switches the trolley to go down a path where only one person is strapped to the tracks. Most people pull the lever because five people live instead of just one person. It’s logical try to save as many lives as you can.
I use lab rats in my research. My little cousin Erin used to have pet rats, so I had always thought of them more as pets, but I didn’t have much of a choice at work. They aren’t pets, they are test subjects. My lab follows all of the laboratory animal safety guidelines are regulations rigorously, but it still sucks to see them go without the love Erin gave her pet rats. I love animals and I feel for the rats, but I know I’m doing research to save human lives, and to me human lives are more important than rat lives. Everyday I’m put into a real life trolley problem where I have to pull the lever and do something awful to save lives. It sucks and I’m constantly conflicted, but I go home knowing I’m doing my best.
But there’s a variation to the trolley problem just to make things a little more interesting. The trolley is speeding down a railroad towards five people who are strapped down. You are standing on a bridge above the tracks. You somehow know that if you push the fat person next to you off of the bridge, the weight will stop the trolley and the other five will be saved. Should you do it? Should you push the fat person off of the bridge?
Logically, the situation hasn’t changed. One person will die but five will be saved. It’s all For the Greater Good, right? But research shows that people are much less likely to save a net of four lives if they have to take an aggressive action like pushing someone off a bridge rather than pulling a lever. Pushing the person off of the bridge makes you feel responsible for the death and that triggers an emotional response. We are now more conflicted. Do we go with the logical side of our brain and save a net of four lives, or do we go with the emotional side and not push a person off a bridge?
Today I pushed the fat rat off of the bridge. Over the past few weeks I have come to terms with fat rats being pushed off the bridge all the time. I’ve categorized it as a necessary evil. It was For the Greater Good. In my mind, I had passively pulled the lever, but today I had to take the next step and push the fat rat off of the bridge. I took an action to end a life, and I just have to tell myself that I saved those five people strapped to the tracks.
I didn’t think it would be this hard, but it’s different when it’s your own two hands. Jennifer always says its traumatic for all involved and I agree. These deaths were’t purposeful and they couldn’t be avoided. The rats were anesthetized and humanely euthanized, and I truly believe that it was For the Greater Good and that I helped save lives today. But that didn’t stop me from sobbing in my car in the parking lot until the car next to me was unlocked and I had to peel out of that parking space like a bat out of hell, which was appropriate because I just pushed a rat off a bridge and I felt like I deserved to be in hell.
Okay so that was pretty dramatic but it’s also my time of the month if you know what I mean so I was/am a freaking mess. But even in my clearly over-emotional mind, I know it is the right thing to do, because thanks to my lab’s research, clinical trials for new therapeutic treatments for schizophrenia wills start next year. People who have this debilitating mental disorder have hope to live more normal lives when my lab conducts its research on rats.
Most days I love what I do. Today was not one of those days. But I am thankful that Dr. Guiffrida taught ethical dilemmas this morning, otherwise I probably would’ve puked.
If you are thinking about scientific research, here’s a list of movies you should never in your life ever see, or you will constantly think Saline Four missed his calling as a five star chef:
- Stuart Little
- Tale of Despereaux
- The Rescuers
- Charlotte’s Wed
- The Secret of Nimh
- Flushed Away
- probably tons more
- avoid animal movies at all costs
If you are thinking about scientific research, here’s a list of movies you should watch because then you can pretend every rat is Peter Pettigrew and you are helping Harry Potter defeat Voldemort by taking out He Who Must Not Be Named’s humble servant:
- Harry Potter
- especially The Goblet of Fire
- might as well watch the entire series
- Albus always loved the Greater Good
harry loves trolleys // except they spelled off like of // or is that a british thing?