Scientific research suggests the answer is ‘yes’. When compared to omnivores, or those who eat both plant and animal products, functional MRI brain scans reveal a more powerful empathic response to both human and animal suffering in the minds of vegetarians and vegans. But, these findings may only be telling us part of the story.
The recent research using fMRI technology did, in fact, show that certain areas of the brain associated with empathy light up more in identified vegetarians and vegans and that the response to images of animal suffering is especially strong. What it does not reveal, however, is where this empathy comes from and if vegetarians and vegans are born with more of it, compared to their omnivorous counterparts.
When considering this chicken-or-the-egg (er, apple-or-the-seed?) scenario, we must remember that most vegans begin as omnivores. While there are some families who raise their children with vegan ethics, many of us came around to the philosophy years into adolescence or adulthood. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, author and animal rights advocate, calls the phenomenon “waking up” after a period of being asleep. She and others would argue that important components of our compassion are lying dormant as we grow up in a world which hides away the suffering of animals and tells us it’s normal to eat them. These parts of ourselves are revitalized when we are able and ready to “wake up” from what is, quite literally, being fed to us.
The mechanism of ignoring empathy-provoking experiences is a protective one. On a small scale, how many times have you purposefully scrolled past an article about some horrendous happening in the world? Our minds can only handle so much at a time. Our empathy has its limits largely because there is so much out there asking for a piece of it. When we are presented with information that requires us to tap into our empathy—and to even consider changing a part of our daily lives—we either rise to the occasion and process it or retreat from the uneasiness of cognitive dissonance, back into our comfort zones.
More research into empathic responses could be helpful in further understanding the mechanics of empathy, not just who appears to have more of it. So, do vegetarians and vegans actually have more empathy? Perhaps they are more plugged into the empathy reserve we all have inside of us. As John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, told Men’s Journal about his decision to follow a vegan philosophy after being presented with the horrors of the animal agriculture industry, “Remember The Matrix? Take the blue pill or the red pill? I didn’t want to go back to sleep.”