Neurophysiology and the environment

There’a an ethics thought experiment from the 60s known as the ‘trolley dilemma‘. In this case a trolley refers to a train carriage. The conceit is split into two different scenarios:

Scenario 1:
A runaway train is hurtling down a track, out of control, towards four workers who are certain to be killed. Nearby is a lever which if pulled can divert the train onto a different track on which there is only one worker who would also meet his maker. Do you pull the lever?

Scenario 2:
This begins with the same initial conditions – train out of control careering towards four workers facing imminent death – however, this is a single track with no lever to pull. You’re standing above the track on a platform, next to you is a large man bird-watching and oblivious to the unfolding drama. You realize if you push him off in front of the train, he’ll land right on the track and his body weight will be enough to slow the train and save the workers. Do you push?

Although the decision may appear in each to be the same, trading one life for four, the results play out a different story. People are much more reluctant to pull the lever in the second situation. Neuroimaging has been able to provide a fairly straightforward answer as to why. To the brain, the first scenario is a maths problem. The dilemma activates regions involved in solving logical problems. The second scenario, where you have to physically interact with pushing the man, recruits brain regions involved in emotion into the decision which is why it feels much more like murder.

Environmental welfare
That the brain processes ostensibly the same problem with fundamentally different neural networks, logic and emotion, provides an interesting lens with which to observe human behaviour. Drone warfare anyone? Let’s put the natural environment under the spotlight. Are we being wilfully negligent in our approach to issues like climate change or the destruction of the Amazon? Perhaps the emotional tug of orphaned orangs or marooned polar bears is insufficient ballast versus the logical arguments for a growing economy.

I’m not sure there’s an answer to why we’re so bad at looking after our environment. Do we need more creative accountancy, a la Sir Nick Stern? Or what about raising the emoshe-o-meter and beefing up the artistic creds, a la Greenpeace? Both have their place and have moved the game along. The view that humans are merely evolved chimps with nuclear weapons also goes a long way to explaining (nearly all) matters. We’re doing our best, but only so much can be expected from a planet colonized by seven billion angry/confused monkeys. But perhaps that does a disservice to monkeys.

Thanks to David Eagleman’s book ‘The Brain: The Story of You’ for providing the impetus for this piece.




  1. Beautifully written piece, mate. Definitely a disservice to monkeys in my opinion – there is something about living in harmony with nature as opposed to trying to control it that I think is important in all this. And something in our “higher” functioning as humans seems to have gone awry in that. Sadly though, the full implications of what that might mean in terms of a solution – a radical reorientation of how we conceive of ourselves and the world – are pretty unpalatable to most people. It would involve letting go of so, so much…

    Liked by 1 person

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