An article appeared in PLoS one this last month which describes brain differences between Vegetarians, Vegans and Omnivores in the way they process pictures of animal suffering.
I was originally planning to write about this only later this week (so that you'd have time to read my Harry Potter and Superstition Post), but since the always well-read Scientific Fundamentalist has a related post out at the moment, I figured I'd "jump on the bandwagon" with this right away. So here we go:
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"
Please don't eat me...?!
The hypothesis behind this study is based on the observation that Vegetarians and Vegans tend to base their decision of avoiding 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 - neurologically - as general differences in the degree of empathy felt towards others.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 viewed a randomized series of pictures. Pictures included neutral scenes and an even share of scenes depicting animal or human suffering.
The first main finding from this study was that Vegans and Vegetarians showed higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) while observing scenes of suffering than did Ominvores.
Further, pictures of animal suffering (in contrast to human suffering) recruited 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 these generally higher activations in certain areas, a second main finding of this study was to show that there are certain brain areas which only Vegetarians and Vegans seem to activate when processing pictures of suffering. In particular, when viewing human suffering pictures, Vegetarians recruited additional brain areas thought to be associated with bodily representations that distinguish self from others, and these areas were particularly active when mutilations were shown.The study has 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].Whatever the case, showing that Vegetarians are possibly more empathetic to the suffering of others is much less interesting to me than simply exploiting another opportunity of pointing out the shear ridiculousness of current meat eating (and production) practices. Besides the well-documented health benefits of a Vegetarian diet, current rates of meat consumption are clearly incompatible with for our own long-term survival as a species. Hence, vegetarianism might be much more of an act of compassion to yourself than it is towards others.