In Sam Keen’s book Your Mythic Journey, he guides the reader on a journey to map their life using a basic concept: Who am I, Where am I going, and Who am I taking with me? As a student of the great philosopher Joseph Campbell, Keen’s trip is a long and winding road creating a personal mythology through self discovery, mind/body language, revisiting heroes and villains, and how we sculpt our present “molding each moment between the right hand of the past and left hand of the future.”
Keen encourages the reader to consider both masculine and feminine virtues in juxtaposition to examine how stereotypes have influenced our worldview, personal values and beliefs. He doesn’t, however, discuss these traits within the context of one of the most powerful influences, which is our chosen diet and nutritional choices. Females are patient, nurturing passive and submissive, while males are aggressive, protecting, stalwart and dominant. Are the explanations for these differences—if differences truly exist—in the nature/nurture theory, or could there be other reasons that refute the stereotypical view of men and women’s disposition?
There is evidence now from observational studies that vegetarians and vegans with a moral philosophy as a guide show greater empathy towards animal suffering, and the empathy extends beyond the animal domain to other humans, even at the neurological level as evidence through MRI examinations, according to a peer review science publication PLoS-ONE.
The Neuroimaging Research Unit, Institute of Experimental Neurology, Division of Neuroscience, Scientific Institute and University Hospital San Raffael in Milan, Italy hypothesize vegetarians and vegans who make food choices for ethical reasons might show brain responses to conditions of suffering of humans and animals that set them apart from omnivores.
The hallmarks of social interaction are empathy and affective appraisals, which means a person’s ability to share in the emotions and concerns of another. Vegetarians could be called emotional omnivores (versus the usual sense of how the term is used).
The experiments included 20 food omnivore subjects, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans. The groups were matched for sex and age. Brain activation was investigated using fMRI and an event-related design during observation of negative affective pictures of human beings and animals (showing mutilations, murdered people, human/animal threat, tortures, wounds, etc.). Participants saw negative-scenes related to humans and animals, alternating with natural landscapes.
During human negative scenes vegetarians and vegans had increased activity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). More critically, during animal negative scenes, they had decreased amygdala activation and increased activation of the lingual gyri, the left cuneus, the posterior cingulate cortex and several areas mainly located in the frontal lobes, including the ACC, the IFG and the middle frontal gyrus.
The executive functions of the frontal lobes involve the ability to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions (or better and best), override and suppress unacceptable social responses, and determine similarities and differences between things or events. Therefore, it is involved in higher mental functions.
The comparative results that differentiate brain activity among vegetarians, vegans and omnivores suggest that empathy among individuals with different feeding habits perhaps reflects different motivational factors and beliefs, which could influence social behavior.
Vegetarianism as we know it is a broad term encompassing several variations on the principled idea of consuming less animal products. As the research suggests empathy can be the guiding philosophy, but there are many ways to approach vegetarianism. Adherence to a vegetarian lifestyle ranges from recommendations by People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that includes in addition to strict diet, activism against factory farms, in the clothing trade, in laboratories, and in the entertainment industry. Moderates can also select from various forgiving, commitment levels to the vegetarian lifestyle.
Generally there are four different types of vegetarians:
This writer prefers a modified flexitarian style that includes small portions of fish or chicken, but the majority of food is derived from plant sources including eggs, whole grains, seeds and nuts.
There is one other topical consideration for vegetarianism. Are some countries more empathetic than others because they are for the most part vegetarian? Countries where vegetarianism is generally a way of life such as India, which is predominantly Hindu, is the largest democracy in the world and has never declared war on anyone. Can an entire country display empathy infusing all aspects of their culture including politics?
The Italian research highlights through the confluence of behavioral science and personal philosophy that our behavior based on dietary selections can be telling. So, if your mythic journey includes searching for a like-minded empathetic person with whom sharing your lifestyle and nutritional habits seems like the right thing to do it could include more trips to the produce section of the market.
Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life through writing and storytelling by Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox, 1973, St. Martin’s Press, New York