Monday, January 24, 2011

The Vegan Brain

So things just got really busy: the North Carolina budget is a disaster; the University of North Carolina system is seriously affected by this reality; the university where I work is looking at ways to cut 15% (somewhere around $15 million) from its operating costs for the 2011-2012 year.  As a result, all programs at my university must generate “program prioritization reports” to justify keeping the program (as opposed to seeing it axed).  I had to write two of these things for two programs that I direct, so I’ve been busy; a lot goes into fighting for one’s job and the jobs of one’s colleagues.
And now we’ll all just wait for the proverbial ax to fall where it may.

But in the midst of all this – the panic, depression, and overwhelming certainty that no matter how much time and effort I put into these reports, no matter how much data I provide to demonstrate the mission critical nature of my programs, the quality of the faculty who teach in them, or their cost effectiveness, the administration will do what the administration has, most likely, already decided to do – a bit of vegan goodness came my way.  So I’ll share.

A friend sent me an article about the differences between brain activity between omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans in response to images of human and nonhuman suffering.  Here’s the abstract:

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.

Mostly I read this and think: “do what, now?”  I don’t know what a “conspecific” is, nor do I fully comprehend the nature of “increased activation of the lingual gyri.”  But what I’m taking away from this – and what I didn’t really need a convoluted scientific study to tell me – is that people who make dietary choices based on ethics that are opposed to human and nonhuman suffering process images of suffering in ways that are different from people whose diets don’t reflect these considerations.  The fact that brain functions differ between these groups seems like a big old “duh” to me.

 (a wee can of duh)

But – and mind you, I’ve only read the abstract and glanced at the charts (I was like, pictures!) – this kind of research tends to show me nothing.  What do we make of the differences in the way various vegan, vegetarian, and omnivorous brains process suffering?  Does the brain response follow from the ethics behind the dietary choice, or do the ethics arise from a brain that is biologically hard wired differently from the majority?  Ultimately, I’m not sure that finding a definitive answer to these questions really matters.

But I’ll try to make it through the full piece and let you know if I learn anything useful, like, for example, how to make everybody's brain work like a vegan brain. . . but I'm doubting that that information is there.


  1. Admittedly, the language in this study has me running in circles, so I bypassed much of the specifics and went straight to the Discussion section. What I found to be interesting (yet not surprising) is the finding that "vegetarians and vegans have an higher engagement of empathy related areas while observing negative scenes regarding animals rather than humans." I've found this to be true for me, and I wonder if this is because I have never really regarded non-human animals to be lesser than me (and therefore less deserving of a life void of suffering- or that they lack the capacity to suffer or know what suffering or misery is), which seems to be a common attitude I have found with meat eaters.

  2. I hate to be the goofball in what is a significant discussion, but where in the world did you find the photo of the "brains" and what are they, exactly? Halloween candy?