Monday, May 9, 2011

Veggie Brain

*** This is one of the 30 or so posts that have been languishing on my computer desktop, just a thought or a note, waiting for its moment of glory here on this highly respected blog :-P ***
      I recently read a very interesting article in Psychology Today about the differences in brain chemistry/wiring between vegetarians/vegans (veg’ans) and omnivores.  The article discusses a recent and very thought provoking study published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE), The Brain Functional Networks Associated to Human and Animal Suffering Differ among Omnivores.  You should seriously check out the study.  Or at least the article.  But I’m more into the hard scientific details and correlations, so I was thrilled to be able to read the study.
      The basic finding here is – not at all surprisingly, in my opinion – people who refrain from eating flesh for ethical reasons seem to have much more empathy than those who eat meat.  And this isn’t a touchy-feely fill out this survey and tell us how much you like animals thing; subjects of the study were placed in a fMRI machine and shown various images, to include images of humans and animals suffering.  The areas of their brains that responded and the degree of the activity in these areas was then measured and quantified.
      Has anyone noticed that I have a *slight* addiction to research studies?  I probably read an average of 50 studies, articles about studies, or results summaries (on all sorts of topics) every week – no exaggeration.  And the number was much higher when I had more free time (and didn’t blog . ..).  I love studies.  I know – I am, in the truest sense of the word, a complete and utter dork.
      You can check out the study or the article for more detailed discussion of the various brain structures affected and the functioning behind them.  While I love that sort of stuff, I recognize that most people don’t really care much whether it was the Anterior Cingular Cortex that lit up or the Medulla Oblongata (it was the former, by the way).
      The long and short of it is that when vegetarians/vegans who refrained from eating flesh based on ethics were shown images of animal and human suffering, they exhibited responses in a NUMBER of brain regions associated with empathy, higher-order representations of the self and values, and bodily representation that were not found in omnivores.
      VERY IMPORTANT NOTE:  Neither this study, nor I, in any way imply that omnivores are lacking in empathy or are in any way cold and heartless.  The study simply demonstrates that ethical veg’ans have more empathy.  So I don’t want any angry comments from the omnivores out there thinking I’m trying to malign anyone.
      Empathy is an extremely important human emotion.  It is an integral key to societal functioning, successful interpersonal relationships, and human happiness.  I’m not exaggerating.  Empathy – The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings (Alvin Goldman) – is the absolute foundation of true kindness.  Those truly sick, cruel individuals among us and throughout history were the ones lacking in empathy (or able to dehumanize others to a degree where they could deactivate empathy, but the same idea).
      If you can’t tell, I feel very strongly about empathy.  I did well before I read this article.  I have always felt strongly about “The Golden Rule,” which is found in most world religions, and I think empathy is the key to being a good friend, parent, wife, and human being.  I am empathetic to a fault (if that’s possible).
      I’m not saying veg’ans are better people (even though I know it sounds like it).  But I’m not at all surprised by this study, either.  There are people out there that can watch movies like Food, Inc. or see images or videos like the one below and three hours later are scarfing bacon or digging into a bucket of chicken.  I can’t do that.  It has gotten to a point where watching other people eat factory farmed meat upsets me.  In that particular area, I have much more empathy than probably most people.  But I’m sure there are other areas where people have me totally outstripped.  As we all know, I have much less empathy for adulterers (granted, I actually do have some; I’m more talk and ranting than anything else on that, but still – I have a heck of a lot more empathy for poor farm animals than people who take vows then refuse to keep it in their pants).
      So what’s my point?  Interesting facts.  Interesting study.  Something to think about.  No real point to speak of.  I’m not trying to say veg’ans are better or trying to talk people into changing their ways.  I simply found this study enlightening and pertinent to stuff I ramble about on this blog. 
      Ok, so maybe I’m trying to change your behavior a little.  Seriously, how can anyone watch something like this and still eat factory farmed meat?  Or refuse to watch it because they don’t want to feel guilty about eating said meat?  By the way, this is where the SCHOOL LUNCH MEAT comes from:
<damn broken links - erg!.

      Yes, these videos are graphic.  Watching them makes me want to simultaneously vomit and cry.  But, damnit, it’s better to watch it and make a change than to refuse to recognize that you contribute to this every single time you eat meat, eggs, or dairy produced by these animals.  And for most US Americans that is EVERY MEAL OF THE EFFING DAY.
      You don’t need “more empathy” to want to make this stop.
      And, oh by the way, people who commit violent acts toward animals JUST LIKE THIS, are exponentially more likely to commit violent acts against other humans, particularly children.  Think maybe we should try to put them out of business?