Veg*n Brains And Animal Suffering
Is there something different about the brains of omnivores compared with those of ethically motivated vegans and vegetarians? According to Massimo Filippi and his project team, the answer is, literally, yes. Their study is the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the differences in neural empathy activity in differently motivated groups toward human and non-human animals.
The study participants consisted of 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans. While their brains were scanned with an fMRI machine, the subjects were shown pictures of animals and humans in conditions of physical abuse and suffering. The researchers tracked the degree of activation in various regions of the brain, especially those known to be related to empathy, pain, fear, self-awareness, and emotional regulation.
As the team predicted, distinct brain response patterns were found across the three groups. Compared with omnivores, vegetarians and vegans experienced higher engagement on average of empathy-related areas of the brain when they observed human and non-human scenes of suffering. In fact, vegetarians and vegans experienced higher empathy engagement while observing negative scenes of animals compared to negative scenes of humans. And the reverse was true for omnivores: they reacted more strongly to human suffering than animal suffering.
The findings were supported by the results of the “Empathy Quotient” (EQ) survey given to the participants. The researchers found a direct relationship between EQ scores and empathy-related activation when viewing pictures of animal suffering for vegans and vegetarians but not for omnivores. The increased activation of empathy-related areas in vegetarians and vegans during animal suffering was accompanied with a reduction of activity in the right amygdala in comparison to omnivores, suggesting an attempt to control emotion—in fact, this phenomenon was highest in the vegan group.
The researchers suggest that the differences stem from the motivational factors and moral attitudes underlying the subjects’ eating decisions, although they do not elaborate or speculate on how much of the difference is likely congenital versus learned or influenced. Expanding the research to encompass more subjects and additional information about their motivational factors and history might lead to more insight about how much people who are not apparently moved by animal-suffering arguments might be affected by exposure and discussion. And it would be helpful if fMRI studies could validate easy-to-administer surveys to help activists understand a person’s likely empathy profile.