A More Ethical Brain: That’s Veganism!

by L Matthews on November 2, 2010

Stop-Animal-Cruelty-animal-rights-5325341-400-298Poverty, cruelty, neglect, violence, murder… Who Cares?

Well apparently vegans and vegetarians do, and more so than their omnivorous counterparts.

A fascinating study just published that has found that vegetarians and vegans show more signs of brain activity connected to empathy than omnivores. It wasn’t just the intensity of the activity either, there are whole areas of the brain that vegans and vegetarians displayed activity in when presented with pictures of animal and human neglect and cruelty. I make no claims to understanding psychology, but this poses some interesting questions. Are we vegan because we have more empathy with our fellow humans and other animals, or do we develop this empathy after becoming vegan? The researchers here only used vegans and vegetarians that had adopted that lifestyle due to ethical choices. A further comparison might be those who were vegan for their health, or perhaps for environmental reasons alone (although clearly these are all intertwined to some extent).

This particular study, which tested 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans, found that:

“During human negative valence scenes, compared with omnivores, vegetarians and vegans had an increased recruitment of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). More critically, during animal negative valence scenes, they had decreased amygdala activation and increased activation of the lingual gyri, the left cuneus, the posterior cingulate cortex and several areas mainly located in the frontal lobes, including the ACC, the IFG and the middle frontal gyrus.”

Now, I don’t really know what that means, so I’ve consulted my medical encyclopaedia and apparently it shows that vegans and vegetarians have more activity in areas of the brain which are used to identify with other creatures and attribute mental states to them. In this study I guess the mental states would be things like fear, pain, loss, grief, terror etc.

The researchers make the observation that a lot of studies on empathy and similar emotional and cognitive responses only focus on empathy towards humans and some actually use scenes of animals as a ‘neutral’ picture… which would have ramifications for those studies conducted previously in terms of how many vegans and vegetarians were amongst the participants. Another sudy showed that the amount of empathy appears to increase the closer the animal is in terms of genetic profile to humans, i.e. a mammal provokes more response than a bird or fish. How very Darwinian!

monkeys huggingThe study uses something called an Empathy Quotient (EQ) which showed that vegetarians actually had the highest amount of empathy of all three groups, not vegans, somewhat surprisingly perhaps although maybe the reasons behind veganism are more subtle in effect than the simple visceral truth behind animal slaughter and vegetarianism.

All in all, perhaps this is the ultimate rebuttal of the oft paraded idea that as vegans and vegetarians we care less about our fellow humans than we do animals (who hasn’t heard that at some point!?). Turns out, we may actually care more about both than all those omnivores out there.

On an entirely less scientific and philosophical note:

I think these people may have taken things a little too much to heart when they heard that it’s good to eat locally sourced food… certainly healthy ‘food on the go’ seems to have been achieved by these locavores.


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