The Moral Brain: 5 Tips for Transcending Moral Dilemmas ~ Srinivasan Pillay

In my post this week in Psychology Today I outlined the brain systems that work against moral behavior, throwing us into chaotic internal states. The brain is wired for morality, but it is also wired for fear and craving, which are powerful and often insurmountable opponents. Similarly, the brain is wired for forgiveness and retribution, so we are always caught between opposing poles, trying to resolve them.

The problem is, we know what we believe is “right,” but the more primitive brain usually wins the battle or else causes us to freeze in our daily strivings. How do we overcome the opposites in the brain? And if we rely on Einstein’s belief that “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created,” how can we access this new level? In my book: “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons To Overcome Fear,” I outline the biology of spirituality, which I will draw on here to form my arguments.

To increase the force of the moral brain, we cannot simply bolster our conviction. Fighting the “negative” side of ourselves often gets us the very thing that we dread. Research has shown that when we dread an outcome, we are more likely to choose it because we cannot stand the waiting [1]. This arises, not just due to the fear, but due to the attention we pay to the things that worry us. Brain-imaging studies show us that the brain’s attention center is over activated in relation to the dreaded outcome; thus we may be able to practice alternate foci of attention and build new brain pathways that are focused on what we want rather than what we do not want. Rather than fear the affair, focus on building the relationship. Rather than fearing losing your money and then gambling, focus on building your wealth.

Furthermore, many people believe that by analyzing our problems, we can reach a solution. But sometimes, analysis leads to paralysis. In fact, brain-imaging studies show that thinking about a problem with vested attention rather than simply placing one’s attention where one feels the distress (turning it inward without thought or judgment) can help to decrease the activation in the fear center of the brain [2]. Thus another way we can move to another level is to remove analysis and judgment when things become hectic, and simply place our attention on the emotions that our needs bring us.

Thirdly, studies show that “transcendence” correlates with greater alpha coherence on brain wave tests [3]. When we struggle with inner conflicts, this fragments the brain into a thousand different directions. We develop “should I or shouldn’t I” brains. Meditation can help to bring the different parts of the thinking brain into alignment. Thus, we fight this duality by creating “oneness” amongst the different parts of our brains. This often resolves the anxiety created by the fight between opposites in the brain.

We also often read that tackling the problem of human consciousness requires giving up the “ego.” This sense of self is sometimes thought to be obstructive to spiritual development. It causes us to identify without struggles and keeps us stuck in the mud of the dueling opposites. To escape this self, spirituality and congregational support (the data are not as conclusive about religious practice yet) can help a person approach this problem from a different level. It just so happens that this decreased sense of “self” that happens with spiritual experiences correlates with decreased activation of the parietal lobe of the brain — a brain region that is responsible for sense of self [4].

Thus, when we are faced with “inner struggles” due to dueling opposites, we can know that all of these opposites are actually brain circuits that are actively running in the brain. Simple brain-based tips are:

1. Change the level: Do not approach the problem at the same level at which it is created.

2. Compose, not oppose
: Compose new positive ideas rather than dreading the negative.

3. Avoid analysis paralysis
: Remember that you take the sting out of fear by observing it non-judgmentally in yourself.

4. Cohere rather than adhere: Meditation kicks your decision-making up a notch by increasing the synchrony of different brain regions.

5. Escape the “self” to find the “real self”: Instead of identifying with your struggle (“I am my struggle or craving”) remove your adherence to this by recognizing that you are not what you feel when your conflict is high. Remove your attention from your conflict.

Your sense of incompleteness is directly related to how much fear and anxiety you have, since anxiety fragments your brain’s functioning. We sometimes experience these fragments as dueling opposites — an internal torture that is difficult to resolve. I contend that if we reduce the fear, your sense of “wholeness” will be enhanced.

# Name Dr. Srini Pillay
# Location boston, ma
# Bio m.d., certified master coach, harvard trained psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and speaker specializing in stress and anxiety.


1. Berns, G.S., et al., Neurobiological substrates of dread. Science, 2006. 312(5774): p. 754-8.
2. Herwig, U., et al., Self-related awareness and emotion regulation. Neuroimage. 50(2): p. 734-41.
3. Travis, F. and A. Arenander, Cross-sectional and longitudinal study of effects of transcendental meditation practice on interhemispheric frontal asymmetry and frontal coherence. Int J Neurosci, 2006. 116(12): p. 1519-38.


Twelve Approaches to Reincarnation and Karma

An article from Insight21 that explores twelve different approaches to understanding the dynamics of reincarnation and karma. Based on research into anthroposophy and other sources, and written by Josef Graf, coordinator of both the Insight21 and Earth Vision projects

It has been thought, by a few great individuals, that if you can garner twelve perspectives on a particular subject, then you can attain a significant understanding of the subject. This article strives in that direction by presenting the dynamics of reincarnation and karma from twelve different angles.

The thrust of the material presented here serves twofold: to help elucidate the actual nature of reincarnation and karma, and to answer to current voices during this materialistic phase of human development who attempt, in vain, to deny its existence. None of the materialist arguments hold any water, as can be seen by reviewing the following twelve aspects of R and K.

1. The masterpiece scenario

If you wanted to design a system that would be a masterpiece, a means of providing individuals with opportunity to fulfill their potential, to keep growing and learning, and meeting themselves with all their foibles and virtues, qualities and talents, vices and shortfalls to improve on, and to ensure that all participants could access awareness of their effects on others (be it right away or, as seems to be more the case in our current time, in the between-lives arena) – then you would come up with the system that appears to be in play on Earth now – the masterpiece of karma and reincarnation in which we live.

Human imagination has, thus far, been unable to come up with anything remotely aching this level of creationist expertise. This, plus the conceptual reality of the R and K scenario in our individual psyches (and in our collective psyche), not only suggests that some kind of omniscient being created this masterpiece, but also implies that the scenario has been fully implemented in the fabric of our existence.

2. Experiment:

Take a moment to imagine the cessation of your “I”.
You can imagine the physical body coming to an end, the dissolution of the body. But can you do so with the “I”? The moment you try, there is your “I” standing back looking for an imagined end to itself.

It can’t be done* – inferring that the Ego lives on after death.

*footnote: The “I” can be dissipated, in a sense, by one’s own efforts, or at least degraded and debilitated, through chronic substance abuse, or through long term practice of a spiritual path that espouses the dissolution of the ego (once an appropriate experience for the soul during the ancient Indian epoch, but now counter to the present leading edge of evolution – the retention and enhancement of the “Ego” or I).

3. Multi-dimensional factors and future life progress.

There are times when an overly simplistic view of reincarnation can be held.

One aspect that helps over-ride this inclination is to understand that thoughts don’t carry on beyond a certain stage of the death process, except as forces, whereas enthusiasms, perceptions and feelings do pass into the next life. That the conceptual life associated with an incarnation dissipates means, for example, that a child who spoke the Greek language in his/her past life does not learn the Greek language any greater ease this life.

Another perceptual shortfall resides, for example, in the notion that a great musician must have been a musician in a prior life, and now has simply progressed to an advanced level. A more accurate perspective views the emergence of a talent as a result of progress made in a past life in another (but obliquely associated) arena of development.

4. Proportion of brain utilized

Through reincarnation, we are given the opportunity to fulfill our overall quest to become whole, fully evolved beings – a quest that is utterly impossible in a single lifetime.

It is generally agreed that we use only 10-20% of our brain capacity. This suggests that eventually we are going to use the whole organ. Of course, to attain such a goal would only be feasible over many lifetimes.

The other side of the indication is that when we die, we move into our deeper wisdom, we move out of our temporary, life-long confinement, into our full capacity (use of 100% versus only 10-20%). We come to know, from an overview, what our life was really about, and where we need to improve, and can then determine where we are going, and with who, and the particulars pertaining to the next life that we choose.

J Graf is the coordinator of Earth Vision and Insight21 – doorways for the 21st Century.

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