There are all sorts of reasons that people stop eating animals: Vegan diets are healthier, are more efficient at combating world hunger, and use less energy and natural resources (including oil) than animal-based foods do. But the most important reason for most vegans is that they don’t want to cause animal suffering. So strong is this thought process that fMRI scans show that the “compassion areas” of the brain are far more active in vegetarians and vegans than in meat-eaters when they see images of animal or human abuse.
These neural images confirm some things that we already knew: Brain activity represents our thoughts and feelings, and vegans are empathetic toward the suffering of others, both humans and animals. Specifically, the medial prefrontal cortex was lit up in the vegetarian and vegan brains. That region is thought to be responsible for higher-order conceptualization of the self and relations with others. These neural processes show how empathy emerges as a shared representation of feelings and emotions, allowing us to understand others. But how do people develop empathy for animals? What triggers these neural associations? For some, it can happen in an instant, perhaps from seeing an undercover video and witnessing the harsh cruelty involved in factory farming, vivisection, the circus, or the fur industry. They may suddenly simply “get it.”
But adopting a vegan diet and a cruelty-free lifestyle is often a multistep process. PETA recently conducted a poll of people who took the Pledge to Be Vegan for 30 Days last winter. Before taking the pledge, 70 percent of the respondents ate meat. Immediately following the pledge, that number dropped to 20 percent, and three months later, only 7 percent still ate meat—93 percent were either vegetarian or vegan. Faux-meat consumption doubled, fruit and veggies in the diet went way up, and only 12 percent of the participants didn’t think that they would continue their quest to be vegan. The hardest part for many of the participants was to stop eating dairy products—no wonder, since cow’s milk products are loaded with casein and its derivative opiates. Those ingredients affect brain functioning in much the same way that morphine does, so dairy products are literally addictive. This is your brain on drugs!
Attitudes and thought patterns change throughout a person’s life—our mental associations and levels of neural activity aren’t just genetically hard-wired. Our brains are never really resting—they are always searching for patterns, trying to make sense of the world even if we aren’t aware of all the processing going on. But that’s one reason that people tend to feel so much better about themselves and their place in the natural world when they do kick the meat habit—a vegan lifestyle makes sense in so many ways that it brings our mental lives into order.
Not vegan yet? Want to give it a try? PETA has tons of resources to help you. You can check out our vegetarian/vegan starter kit online or order a physical copy here. The starter kit includes many nutritional tips and recipes designed to get you started in your quest for better health and a more compassionate lifestyle. You can also visit VegCooking.com for tons of yummy, healthy, and cruelty-free vegan recipes.