Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Empathy is what really sets vegetarians apart

I think this is a fascinating study even if it doesn't tease apart cause and effect. Ref for original scientific paper at bottom of post, after the brilliant op-ed piece by Daniel R. Hawes. -MA

From Psychology Today
Empathy is What Really Sets Vegetarians Apart (at least Neurologically Speaking)
by Daniel R. Hawes

An article appeared in PLoS one this May which describes brain differences between Vegetarians, Vegans and Omnivores in the way they process pictures of animal suffering.

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"
In addition to generally higher activations in the above mentioned areas, a second main finding of this study is that there are certain brain areas which only Vegetarians and Vegans seem to activate when processing pictures of suffering. In particular, when viewing pictures of human suffering, Vegetarians in this study recruited additional brain areas thought to be associated with bodily representations that distinguish self from others. (Notably these areas were particularly active when mutilations were shown).

The study has - of course - 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."
All things considered, the study suggests that Vegetarians are more empathetic to the suffering of others, but as I contemplate the well-documented health benefits of a Vegetarian diet, as well as the environmental and social hazards of current meat eating habits and production practices, I think it is obvious that reducing your meat consumption will first and foremost be an act of compassion towards yourself.

Citation: Filippi M, Riccitelli G, Falini A, Di Salle F, Vuilleumier P, et al. (2010) The Brain Functional Networks Associated to Human and Animal Suffering Differ among Omnivores, Vegetarians and Vegans. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10847. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010847

Empathy and affective appraisals for conspecifics are among the hallmarks of social interaction. Using functional MRI, we hypothesized that vegetarians and vegans, who made their feeding choice for ethical reasons, might show brain responses to conditions of suffering involving humans or animals different from omnivores. We recruited 20 omnivore subjects, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans. The groups were matched for sex and age. Brain activation was investigated using fMRI and an event-related design during observation of negative affective pictures of human beings and animals (showing mutilations, murdered people, human/animal threat, tortures, wounds, etc.). Participants saw negative-valence scenes related to humans and animals, alternating with natural landscapes. 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. Nonetheless, also substantial differences between vegetarians and vegans have been found responding to negative scenes. Vegetarians showed a selective recruitment of the right inferior parietal lobule during human negative scenes, and a prevailing activation of the ACC during animal negative scenes. Conversely, during animal negative scenes an increased activation of the inferior prefrontal cortex was observed in vegans. These results suggest that empathy toward non conspecifics has different neural representation among individuals with different feeding habits, perhaps reflecting different motivational factors and beliefs.

Thanks to Jen F for the link!

No comments: