The Moral Brain: 5 Tips for Transcending Moral Dilemmas

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.
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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 overactivated 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.


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.
4. Johnstone, B., Spirituality, religion and health outcomes research: findings from the Center on Religion and the Professions. Mo Med, 2009. 106(2): p. 141-4.

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