Empathy Sets Vegetarians Apart

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.

By Daniel R. Hawes

An article appeared in PLoS one this past May which describes brain differences between Vegetarians, Vegans and Omnivores in the way they process pictures of animal suffering.

The study in question is a neuroimaging study intent on investigating whether

“the neural representation of conditions of abuse and suffering might be different among subjects who made different feeding choice due to ethical reasons, and thus result in the engagement of different components of the brain networks associated with empathy and social cognition”

The hypothesis behind this study is based on the observation that Vegetarians and Vegans tend to base their decision to avoid animal products on ethical grounds. Assuming that Vegetarians and Vegans – because of their underlying moral philosophies – show greater empathy towards animal suffering, it is very well possible that these differences in empathy extend beyond the animal domain and show up as general differences in the degree of empathy felt towards other humans also; even at a neurological level.

The study – in basic terms – investigates this hypothesis by placing subjects into a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine and looking at the “activation” of different brain areas as subjects view a randomized series of pictures. The pictures used for this study included neutral scenes and an even share of scenes depicting various kinds of animal and human suffering.

The first main finding of this study is that, compared to Omnivores, Vegans and Vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering; whether it be animal or human suffering.

Further, pictures of animal suffering (in contrast to pictures human suffering) recruited specific brain regions in Vegans and Vegetarians that were not differentially recruited by Omnivores. These were areas which are thought to be associated with higher-order representations of the self and self values (e.g. medial Prefrontal Cortex).

In addition to generally higher activations in the above mentioned areas, a second main finding of this study is that there are certain brain areas which only Vegetarians and Vegans seem to activate when processing pictures of suffering. In particular, when viewing pictures of human suffering, Vegetarians in this study recruited additional brain areas thought to be associated with bodily representations that distinguish self from others. (Notably these areas were particularly active when mutilations were shown).

The study has – of course – its own shortcomings, and I am somewhat breaking one of my own rules here by presenting fMRI related research without a thorough discussion of the statistics involved, however I feel vindicated by the fact that the authors themselves remain moderate in their conclusions by stating that

“Our results converge with theories that consider empathy as accommodating a shared representation of emotions and sensations between individuals, allowing us to understand others. They also led us to speculate that the neuronal bases of empathy involve several distinct components including mirroring mechanisms, as well as emotion contagion and representations of connectedness with the self. In addition, brain areas similar to those showing different emotional responses between groups in our study have also been found to be modulated by religiosity, further supporting a key role of affect and empathy in moral reasoning and social values.” [italics added].

All things considered, the study suggests that Vegetarians are more empathetic to the suffering of others, but as I contemplate the well-documented health benefits of a Vegetarian diet, as well as the environmental and social hazards of current meat eating habits and production practices, I think it is obvious that reducing your meat consumption will first and foremost be an act of compassion towards yourself.

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2 Responses to Empathy Sets Vegetarians Apart

  1. I sometimes wonder whether empathy is ‘inborn’, ‘nurtured’ or as a result of our stance.

    What I mean is, we may have been subjected to something that triggered our emotions and became veg*n and because of the daily thoughts about suffering this has changed brain patterns.

    I feel that I was born vegan. That’s not to say that my parents brought me up as a vegan but, as soon as my teacher mentioned where meat came from, aged 8, I stopped eating it right away.

    It wasn’t some ‘major animal welfare’ lesson. It was just one sentence. Obviously, at age 8, they’re not going to go in to gruesome details about the raising and slaughter of animals.

    I just realised that they needed to die to make the meat and fish and I didn’t want any part of it and on arriving home that afternoon refused the beef about to be put on my plate.

    My parents assumed I was just being awkward (as many children are about food) and would start eating it within days. Well, I’m 42 and still haven’t touched animal products since. I’m vegan.

    • My cousin did exactly the same! When she was 8, she asked her mother where the meat comes from. After receiving answer she said: “Then I won`t eat it anymore”. Now she is 20 and still vegetarian. her mother didn`t eat meat during the pregnancy.

      Another case of such kid was my grangrandma`s brother who saw chicken coming out of the egg when he was about 6. He stopped eating eggs from that time ( don`t know if he was full vegatarian, he died long time before I was born)

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