Men and women come from different planets – this is now accepted theory because we are so truly different in how we see the world.

But are vegetarians and non vegetarians from different planets ? There is a difference in perception. Where some see a juicy steak, we see a dead cow. While some think of how good the meat will taste, we contemplate the way the animal suffered on its path to the plate.

Why the difference in perception? It turns out it vegetarians are wired differently from meat eaters and are much more moved by suffering in any form. Daniel R. Rowes of Psychology Today has written about a recent Italian study that shows that empathy is what really separates vegetarians and omnivores. The study was "based on the observation that vegetarians and vegans tend to base their decision to avoid animal products on ethical grounds." This is backed up by a another study done in 2008 that 54 percent of American vegetarians cited animal welfare as the main reason they gave up meat. The Italian researchers wanted to determine if the empathy vegetarians and vegans extend towards animals applied to humans as well. In short was awareness and kindness part of the person’s genetic structure or was it simply an interest.

To test this, 20 meateaters, 19 vegetarians and 21 vegans  were placed "in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine" while researchers looked "at the 'activation' of different brain areas as subjects view a randomized series of pictures."  Some of the pictures were of natural landscapes, while others showed scenes of torture, mutilation, death, and so on involving both animals and humans. Researchers monitored the neurological reactions to the pictures.

What did the study find?

The main finding of this study is that, compared to meateaters, vegans and vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering; whether it be animal or human suffering.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions. According to the journal Anthrozoos, "Past research found that positive attitudes toward animals are positively correlated with human-directed empathy."

According to psychologists , the empathy that children feel is gradually abandoned because there is  "cultural pressure to abandon our fascination with animals" as we get older. Learning to be less empathic towards animals is considered a step towards maturity in our society. And that results in the reduction of empathy towards fellow humans as well. Scientific American recently wrote about a study of college students showing that "today’s young people are 40 percent less empathetic than college kids from 30 years ago." The sharpest drop in empathy has occurred in the last nine years. According to the study, today’s students are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."  Imagine a whole generation with diminished empathy. No wonder the Iraq and Afghanistan massacres go on and on and have simply become television shows.

Fortunately, vegetarians cannot, because of their different brain wiring, learn to drop compassion from their minds. It's important to highlight that the Italian study shows vegetarians and vegans to be more empathic to both animals and humans because many of us in the animal welfare community have been accused of "caring more about animals than people" The link between empathy for animals and empathy for humans should come as no surprise. All of us who care for animals also do a lot of human rights/welfare work. Logically , once you become aware of one form of oppression, you're more likely to recognize it in other forms.

But that is not the only way in which vegetarians and meateaters are different. The Daily Telegraph reports that Mensa which is a worldwide elite society for people with high IQ has more than its share of vegetarians. While Australia only has 4 lakh vegetarians , the Australian Mensa has so many that it has started  a fortnightly magazine called Vegetarian Life for their members.

According to The British Medical Journal a study tested the IQ of a group of 8,000 10-year-old children and followed their diets till they  were 30 years old. The found that those who became vegetarian by 30 had an IQ five points above the average. Male vegetarians had an IQ score of 106, compared with 101 for non-vegetarians, while female vegetarians averaged 104, compared with 99 for their meat-eating peers. The study also said that children with higher IQs are 20 % more likely to grow up to be vegetarians.

This fits in with another statistic : College students are the most rapidly growing group of vegetarians. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, estimates that 18% of U.S. college students are vegetarian. This is when only  3% of the American population is vegetarian.

The 18th century scientist Benjamin Franklin said a vegetarian diet brought a "greater clearness of head and quicker comprehension''. Nutrition can be a solid reason. If the cerebellum is not receiving the required nutrients, the whole concept of balance becomes difficult. If the Medulla is not treated right, you will feel too hot or too cold. The thalamus is a base camp for information. Just as a car does not run on lollipops , the human body needs the right fuel to run its machine well. Meat clogs arteries and veins more than vegetables would, so that means less oxygen getting to the brain "It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind!."  said Albert Einstein

Here is the third difference:

A major study called the The seventh Day Adventists Study done by Bonnie Beezhold /Carol Johnston/Deanna Daigle and printed in Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:26  shows the mental health status of vegetarians as opposed to non vegetarians , particularly with regard to mood. This is an important study because the physical health status of vegetarians has been extensively reported, but there is limited research regarding the mental health status of vegetarians

The researchers examined associations between mood state and polyunsaturated fatty acid intake as a result of adherence to a vegetarian or meat based diet in a study of 138 healthy men and women. Participants completed a quantitative food frequency questionnaire, Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS), and Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaires.

Results: Vegetarians (VEG:n=60) reported significantly less negative emotion than omnivores (OMN:n=78) as measured by both mean total DASS and POMS scores (8.32+/-0.88 vs 17.51+/-1.88, p=.000 and 0.10+/-1.99 vs 15.33+/-3.10, p=.007, respectively).

In English that means :  Vegetarians diets are lower in omega-3 fatty acids that come from eating fish which studies claim are a key factor in improving both physical and mental health. So the researchers expected to find vegetarians with higher depression, anxiety, and mood problems. Instead, they found the opposite. Vegetarians scored lower on depression tests and had better mood profiles than their fish- and meat-eating peers. “While dietary intake of EPA and DHA has an important role in brain function, we found no evidence that the absence of direct intake of these fatty acids in vegetarians adversely affects mood state,” the study reports. “These results challenge what is known about the link between dietary fats and brain function and suggest an unrecognized benefit of vegetarian diets.” If you still eat a lot of meat, you might want to reconsider your diet and get happier.

Just as scientists have seen that meditation lights up parts of the brain that have been dark before , becoming vegetarian would open up pathways of  thought that have been unused before. As the body becomes cleaner and more in tune with its real nature, the brain becomes sharper and is easier to use. The world becomes simpler to negotiate when you empathise with everyone on it so your judgements become clearer.

I thought it was my search for something bigger than myself that kept me happy  inspite of the turbulence of my life but it now seems it was my vegetarian diet !

Maneka Gandhi

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