Daily Archives: September 11, 2013

The Vegan Brain is Different After All!

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

I just found a very interesting new study which suggests that vegan and vegetarian brains do in fact work differently from the brains of omnivores when we observe the mouth gestures of closely related animals. According to San Raffaele University, Milan, Italy in, The “vegetarian brain”: chatting with monkeys and pigs?:

An array of brain regions in the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes cooperates to process observation and execution of actions performed by other individuals. Using functional MRI, we hypothesized that vegetarians and vegans might show brain responses to mouth actions performed by humans, monkeys, and pigs different from omnivores. We scanned 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans while watching a series of silent videos, which presented a single mouth action performed by a human, a monkey, and a pig. Compared to omnivores, vegetarians and vegans have increased functional connectivity between regions of the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes versus the cerebellum during observation of mouth actions performed by humans and, to the same degree, animals. Vegans also had increased connectivity with the supplementary motor area. During human mouth actions, increased amygdala activity in vegetarians and vegans was found. More critically, vegetarians recruited the right middle frontal gyrus and insula, which are involved in social mirroring, whereas vegans activated the left inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus, which are part of the mirror neuron system. Monkey mouth actions triggered language network activity in both groups, which might be due to the attempt to decode monkey mouth gesture, with an additional recruitment of associative temporo-occipital areas in vegans, whereas pig mouth actions activated empathy-related regions, including the anterior cingulum. These results support the role of the action observation-execution matching system in social cognition, which enables us to interact not only with our conspecifics but also with species in phylogenetic proximity to humans.

So next time you have trouble understanding the eating habits of omnivores, it could be due to our brains being wired differently. It seems we are more likely to feel empathy when seeing certain animals, and this may be hard-wired into our brains more so than in omnivores. Interestingly enough, vegan and vegetarian amygdalas(the emotional center of the brain) were more active than omnivore amygdalas when watching human mouth actions too. This means that our amydalas are more reactive in general, not just when it comes to empathizing with animals.

As an aside, it would be great if we could do brain scans of politicians, to see if their brains are very different from the brains of non-politicians. I have my suspicions. Most days, they seem like an entirely differently life-form!