Differing Empathy in Vegetarians, Vegans, and Omnivores
For many, the choice to follow a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle is an easy one to make; it’s a decision grounded in ethics and values. Opting not to consume animal products means not participating in an industry that frequently exploits and abuses animals. Accordingly, for many animal advocates, living these lifestyles is compulsory in order to maintain consistent ethics, ethics that are built upon great feelings of empathy towards animals. This may be a “common sense” conclusion for many animal advocates. However, what about empathy towards fellow humans? Could enacting lifestyles that demonstrate greater empathy towards animals also affect how we empathize with other people?
A group of European researchers set out to answer this question by mapping our neural responses to human and animal suffering. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers exposed 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans to images of humans and animals suffering and recorded their brains’ responses. The study was motivated by two concepts: first, that the ability to empathize is a uniquely human trait. Second, that those following a veg*n lifestyle engage different parts of our brains when it comes to empathy and social cognition. The researchers hypothesized that veg*ns would show different brain activity than omnivores when both groups are shown images of suffering.
Prior to study, all participants completed an empathy quotient (EQ) assessment in order to measure their self-reported levels of empathy. Possible scores ranged from 0 to 80, with a higher number suggesting a higher level of empathy. Veg*ns received average scores of 49.5 and 44.6, respectively. These numbers were significantly higher than the 38.8 average score of the omnivorous participants.
After completing this assessment, participants were presented with a mixture of pictures involving human suffering, animal suffering, and natural landscapes (which constituted “neutral” imagery). During this procedure, participants were hooked up to an MRI machine in order to read their neural activity. These brain scans led researchers to several points of interest.
First, they found that vegetarians and vegans alike appear to share a functional architecture of emotional cognition. Compared to the group of omnivores, veg*ns showed a notably higher engagement of empathy-related brain regions when shown images of suffering—whether they included animals or humans. In other words, veg*ns demonstrated stronger empathetic reactions.
Further, veg*ns showed an even stronger engagement of empathy when viewing images of animal suffering. In these instances, more regions of the brain were activated. Interestingly, these activated brain regions are ones thought to be associated with representation of self, self-values, memory, and visuospatial processing, suggesting that veg*ns see the suffering of animals as related to their sense of self.
One interesting finding was that, after seeing animal suffering, the right amygdalas of veg*ns showed less activation than that of omnivores’. The amygdala is associated with feelings of fear and threat, and is responsible for what we know as the “fight or flight” response. The researchers reckoned that the decreased activation when faced with animal suffering was the brain’s attempts to regulate emotions in response to stressful stimuli.
Finally, there were some fascinating findings within the vegetarian and vegan participant groups. When vegetarians were presented with images of animal suffering, brain regions associated with increased attention, higher empathetic pain, greater self-control, and more monitoring were engaged. On the other hand, vegans’ brains showed greater activity in the area associated with cognitive control during processing of emotion.
How do the EQ scores play into these findings? The researchers specifically looked for correlations between the groups’ EQ scores and brain activity. They found that, when viewing animal suffering, there was a direct relationship between higher EQ scores and increased brain activity in empathy-related areas in veg*ns. In omnivores, this relationship was inverse.
In a word, do vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores process images of suffering differently? Yes. This study, while small, revealed some of the ways these groups differ when it comes to cognition and empathy. It’s significant for being the first to measure empathy towards non-humans in people of different lifestyles, and it represents a crucial intersection between animal advocacy and neuroscience. We should look forward to future and follow-up studies in this field. In the meantime, we now know that veg*ns may indeed cognitively function in different ways, which adds a whole new layer to our ethics and chosen lifestyles.