You Love Animals Right? Your Brain IS Different from Those Who Don’t

Is the human race divided into two tribes, those who love animals and those who don’t? Yes, it seems so. But what makes us this way? If only we could open a window into the human brain and see what is going on in there, what it is that makes one ‘tribe’ so different from the other.

Oh, hang on – we can. Exactly what was revealed when neuroscientist Massimo Filippi and his team did just that, opened that window, we will come to very shortly.

We’ve already seen in his fascinating book The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw delving deep into the past to unravel the threads of our relationship with domesticated animals. He uncovers an evolutionary forking of the path – one group of humanity opting to settle, begin domesticating and living with animals, while the other remained hunting, marauding nomads.

Through the generations, passing those tameness genes down, the domesticated cats and dogs, cattle and sheep gradually got tamer. And at the same time the humans who lived with animals passed down their own evolving animal-loving genes to their descendants.

Meanwhile, the nomads found themselves an easy living without the trouble of making animals a part of their daily lives, by raiding the others’ settlements and stealing theirs. Animal-lover of animal-unlover, whichever group we fall into, that is very likely how we came to be. With apologies to John Bradshaw for squeezing what takes a book to explain into an ever-so-slightly oversimplified couple of paragraphs!

Now back to Massimo & co and their window into the brain

Their project set out to measure and compare the levels of empathy towards other humans and towards nonhuman animals in 3 different groups: omnivores, ethical vegetarians, and ethical vegans. By ethical we mean those who are veg*n for the animals rather than say, simply for their own health.

All the participants were first given an ‘Empathy Quotient’ survey to complete. Social cognitive neuroscientist Claus Lamm’s definition of empathy might be useful at this point:

“When we are confronted with another person [human or nonhuman] – say, someone in pain – our brains respond not just by observing, but by copying the experience. Empathy results in emotion sharing. I don’t just know what you are feeling, I create an emotion in myself.

Next, using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) they showed the different groups images of human suffering and animal suffering, and monitored their brain activity to establish exactly what was happening inside these people’s heads.

The results of the fMRI:

  • The veggies and vegans showed more activity in empathy-related areas of the brain to images of both human and nonhuman suffering than the omnis
  • The veggies and vegans responded more strongly to the animal suffering than the human suffering
  • The vegans responded more strongly than the veggies to animal suffering
  • The veggies reacted more strongly than the vegans to human suffering
  • The omnis reacted more to the human suffering than the animal suffering
  • Both vegans and veggies showed reduced activity in the amygdala, which means that they were trying hard to control their emotions. Especially the vegans

All of which corresponded with the results from that preliminary EQ survey.

The study does leave some questions unanswered. For example, wouldn’t it be important to know which nonhuman animals appeared in the images? Were they dogs, cats, rats or hens? If they weren’t companion animals, might not cognitive dissonance have come into play for the omnis? After all, veg*ns don’t hold exclusive rights on loving animals, do they?

Cognitive dissonance – a brief excursion into the secret that enables our crazy species to both love animals and eat them. This is how it works:

In our Western culture we are socially conditioned to see animals as falling into specific groups defined entirely by how we humans relate to them, and how useful they are to us. We absorb this way of thinking completely unconsciously from our mother’s knee, and everything we encounter throughout our childhood, books, movies, games, toys, advertising, reinforces the construct.

So we have:

Wild Animals with whom we have little contact

Utility Animals who ‘work’ for us – horses, donkeys, farm and police dogs and so on

Food Animals – cows, pigs, sheep, hens

Animals for entertainment – racehorses, greyhounds, circus animals, animals in zoos and aquaria

Animals for ‘education’ – animals in labs, zoos and aquaria, in schools and universities

Companion Animals – pet dogs, cats, hamsters, budgies etc

And let us not forget

Vermin – this category can be made to emcompass any species from buzzards to badgers that humans discover reasons for finding ‘a nuisance’

What makes veg*ns different, is that they have broken down and demolished this construct. To them it matters not whether it is a woodlouse or a wolf, a chicken or a cheetah. A life is a life, and each and every one matters and has a right to live free from harm and exploitation. But might it not make a difference which animals’ pics were shown to the omnivorous participants? As they remain captive to that social conditioning which compels them to allot a category to different animals, some animals might matter to them more than others.

That aside, it’s no surprise that omnis responded more to human suffering than animal, or that for the veg*ns it was the reverse. The interesting finding was that the veg*ns were more responsive to suffering overall than the omnis. Yet most veg*ns including me, started life omnivorous.

So do the study’s results mean we were born with an innate empathy that turned us into vegans, or did becoming vegan make us more empathetic? Who knows.

If we fail to imagine what animals might be feeling, ” we could do a great deal of harm, and put suffering in the world that doesn’t need to be there”

Philosopher Janet Stemwedel

One thing the findings do, is cast doubt on how effective it is for animal advocates to try ‘converting’ omnivores by showing them images of the misery endured by so many animals at human hands. The response might fall disappointingly short of a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. The research shows that for some, seeing is not necessarily feeling.

But it isn’t only written in the genes. The brain has plasticity – it is capable of being moulded. So let’s take the hopeful view and assume that becoming vegan helped make us more empathetic. And that omnivores may have more of those nomadic raiders’ genes with an animal-disconnect. But they are also profoundly conditioned, as we all are or have been, in their attitudes to nonhuman animals by the prevailing norms of our society.

Do you love animals but still eat them? Here is one eloquent, passionate man who may be able to change your mind. Philip Wollen, tearing down those malignant social norms – so inhumane towards nonhuman animals, and indeed, so disastrously damaging for humankind and the planet itself.

Help to go vegan here



Veg*n Brains & Animal Suffering

Empathy for Animals is all about us

The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood

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The Animal Conspiracy Part 2

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5 thoughts on “You Love Animals Right? Your Brain IS Different from Those Who Don’t

  1. Another great post!!

    I’m glad these kinds of studies are being conducted. I have always wondered why some people care about animals and try to protect and help them while others are oblivious to their pain. The genetic connection provides one answer. It also helps explain why information/education promotes lifestyle changes in some people while others remain indifferent to the most horrendous videos and photos of animal suffering. (And yet, there are some who abuse animals for years, like some hunters and farmers, who decide to stop shooting and change their farm’s production from animals to plants. Fortunately, they can offer their individual stories for lifestyle change.)

    I also wish the measurements for empathy would have controlled for the type of animals pictured for the three groups. I suspect the omnivores would have been more positive to dogs and cats, while the rats and rattlesnakes would have depended on the vegans for feelings of goodwill. Maybe the veggies would have been somewhere in between.

    I think there are two ways of looking at domestication and our treatment of the animals: One focuses on empathy, and the other reveals great deal of cruelty.

    David A. Nibert, in “Animal Oppression & Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict” offers a different view of domestication, or as he refers to it “domesecration,” from Bradshaw’s. Nibert believes the road to domesecration was one of “capture, enslavement, use, and slaying . . . . “ We know abuses would have included castration, probable slaughter of male calves to expropriate their milk, and training of some animals as burden bearers, along with all the horrendous paraphernalia of restraints, whips, and goads that would have entailed.

    Nibert notes that archeological evidence for abuse include “bone pathologies resulting from physical trauma and poor diet, chronic arthritis, gum disease, and high levels of stress.” The crowding and confining of domesticated animals also led to spread of infectious diseases but, of course, no veterinarians to treat them.
    So archeological, as well as historical, evidence suggests human beings have always treated animals brutally. But there must have been some people who were capable of empathy and had the opportunity to help the animals when they part of their everyday lives.

    The issue of either having or not having the empathy gene raises interesting questions about how to deal with animal abuse. For one thing, our belief in education as the answer for just about all problems needs to be abandoned when it comes to abusers. Educational videos, such as those produced by Mercy For Animals, would likely have no effect on people who simply do not have it in them to care. They are the kind who can comment “yum, bacon” when they see pictures of a terrible barn fire that claimed the lives of thousands of baby pigs. Hoping to teach them empathy would be like trying to train someone who was tone deaf to become a concert violinist.

    This then begs the following question: For people lacking in empathy, is punishment the only solution for those accused of animal cruelty? If the abusers do not care and cannot learn to care about the suffering of animals, will feeing the “pain” of fines and prison be the only deterrent. If so, that makes enacting and enforcing anti-cruelty laws even more important.

    I hope the above research continues. The MRI is a blessing since it can show actual brain changes that add support to other educational and clinical studies.

    David A. Nibert, “Animal Oppression & Human Violence: Demesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict,” Columbia University Press, 2013.
    ________ “Animal Rights, Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation,” Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you as always for a fascinating response, for bringing new insights and filling out areas left unexplored. Much valued, thank you.

    When it comes to the human mind and heart, all bets are off. We are a tangle that will take some unraveling. It’s terrible to think that nonhuman animals have suffered such abuse from the moment we first enslaved them.

    As regards punishment, there are innumerable examples of schemes where convicted prisoners care for animals, with very positive effects for both. Whether their number includes any animal abusers… Maybe the prisoners ARE able to empathise with the animals because they are fellow incarceratees. “These dogs are locked up just like we are and they need love just like we do.It’s not about us when we come here. It’s about the dogs and making sure they’re taken care of and loved and bathed – that they know what it’s like to feel loved.”

    This is a good one too One inmate said he had discovered “a lot of caring I didn’t know I had” working with the animals.

    Some go on to work with animals on their release. Let us hope given the right circumstances, even abusers can learn empathy.


  3. I think perhaps as vegan’s our sensitivity grows. I don’t think we are hardwired to be vegans or omnivores, as you say most of us were omnivores to begin with. People change. I agree that extreme perpetrators of cruelty may indeed be genetically inclined this way and are psychopaths but I think the majority of people can change. Maybe emotion does not have a role in how some people treat animals, maybe some people wish to help animals simply because it is the right thing to do. The video was very motivational, I had not realised there were so many vegetarians in the world, because when it comes to shopping and eating out this is not reflected by what is available.

    As usual a very thought provoking and interesting article. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right that our sensitivity grows after we become vegan, and part of that may be due to the diet itself. You are what you eat after all, and a kind diet makes us kinder I think. I definitely would like to believe most people are capable of change. It’s a question of finding the best ways to help them on that journey. Thank you so much for your contribution.


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