A cure for the reptilian brain

A priest and psychotherapist finds answers in Genesis, the work of Carl Jung and the science of meditation

BY DAVID RICKEY — Hate crimes are nothing new. They have been around ever since the homo sapien emerged from its evolutionary forebears.  Animals have an instinctive “fight or flight” response built into their brain structure.

Human beings, as they evolved, didn’t lose it; they just built on top of this “reptilian brain.” The new layer was the “cerebral cortex,” which allowed us to reflect on experiences and develop ideas rather than just act out instinctual responses. And therein lies the problem. Hate is the just the attitudinal equivalent of  “Fight or Flight”.

repitlian-brainAs we evolved the ability to think in abstract ways, we also developed the ability to rationalize, to protect our sense of “self” by developing complex thought patterns that could shift the blame/responsibility to others.

Our sense of “self” and “place” are threatened by events, disappointments, failures. When our Ego can’t tolerate the threat, it calls upon the mechanisms of the lower brain and attacks.

When confronted in the Book of Genesis, Adam said: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” More aggressively, when Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, he slew Abel rather than ask, “Why?”

Scapegoating the “other”

These mythological stories point to a very human truth: We generally do not like taking responsibility for our own situations, and so we seek a scapegoat to project our foibles on.


When James W. Von Brunn entered the Holocaust Museum and began shooting, he was, once again, trying to find a scapegoat for his own inability to make sense out of his own life. In 1981, during another time of financial crisis, he attempted to take the Federal Reserve Board hostage because interest rates were so high he couldn’t manage his finances. It wasn’t his fault.

The Federal Reserve, in his delusion, was an “international bankers’ conspiracy to rule all nations from one central seat of government.” And because they were under the control of Jews (he rationalized), they had driven up the rates to make it so difficult to be “white” in this country.

This is an extreme example of the tendency of the Ego to shift responsibility for life’s negative events to something outside of its control. “It’s not my fault!” When life becomes particularly unmanageable, the shift of responsibility becomes global, and turns into hate, either of a person who represents the problem, or of a whole group like “The Jews” or “The Illegal Immigrants.”

There is probably a consistent ratio between the amount of psychic pain we have experienced (painful childhoods, or intense adult stress), but haven’t processed beyond defending against feeling the pain (see “pain body” articles on this site), and the propensity to hate and seek scapegoats for our internal conflicts.

Rising tensions in times of crisis

Although there have been several strong examples of this shift in the news lately — the killing of Dr. George Tiller for performing late term abortions, and the Islamic convert who killed two Army officers outside a recruiting center. As despicable as these all are, they are really a direct symptom of human beings’ collective failure to evolve beyond ego-driven thought patterns. It continues to be easier to blame others than do the work of introspection or develop self-awareness.

Teaching self-awareness through meditation

The solution to these hate crimes isn’t the elimination of free speech, or even just the incarceration of radical advocates of hate. A long-term solution is to teach meditation in every school, every church, ideally, every place possible, including our prison system.  This would give everyone the tools they need to evolve human consciousness beyond the Ego.

jail6This may sound idealistic,  but there is no other known way that is so effective in supporting the evolution of consciousness. Meditation and yoga have been proven to reduce stress and improve learning in schools. Vipassana Meditiation is taught in prisons in India.

Meditation literally allows us to shift the center of our reactive decision making from the ‘Reptilian Brain” and the ego-centered left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex to the more holistic right hemisphere. This is the evolution of consciousness, and, I believe, the solution to hate crimes.

(Burning cross image by arash_rk, via Flickr, CC 2.0)

David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.

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8 Responses to “A cure for the reptilian brain”

  1. Tarlochan Singh Dhillon Reply 16. Jun, 2009 at 5:42 am

    Meditation should not only be taught in schools but it should also be practised in prisons. For there, you have a “captive” audience. This is the ideal place to check whether meditation works. I understand that TM has been practised in prisons to quite some notable effect. I also hear that it is practised in Indian prisons. Perhaps this is the way to go.

    Infinite blessings,

  2. I think meditation works about 65% of the time. I don’t mean to be pessimistic about the number.

    Regarding hate crimes, there are people who have been misguided. However, there are also people who genuinely reap great pleasure in evil acts.

  3. Only if you can get the haters to calm down enough and stop being afraid of everything different long enough to get them to meditate…ever notice how medicate is only 1 letter away?

  4. I’m more referring to teaching young people to meditate before they become haters. Of course, meditation requires a willingness to do the practice. The point is about how we can facilitate the evolution of consciousness. “Facilitate” because, although evolution is a natural process, our technical skills have far outpaced our personal skills. We are still, in many cases, like cave dwellers but with bombs instead of clubs. There are many studies that show that teaching meditation to younger people both increase the ability to learn and concentrate and decrease the tendencies to become violent.

    I don’t believe that people genuinely “reap great pleasure” from evil acts. Rather they placate inner “demons” – that is, what “pleasure” they experience is more the momentary reduction of intense inner pain. Or to put it another way, they have become addicted to the chemical rush produced by “evil” deeds and, like any other addict, keep needing to get their “fix”. Actually, there is much evidence that says there is a concomitant desire to finally get caught and stopped, because, like for any other addict, the cycle of violence is too difficult to maintain.

  5. Of course, meditation and prayers changes man’s spirituality and mental condition. It frees you from fears, doubts, troubles and hatred.

  6. If meditation was taught and practiced regularly at an early age, I agree these crimes could be lessened.

    Unfortunately, the reality of the home environment and the attitudes of parents influence chidren more than anything. If they are raised in an atmosphere of ignorance and hate, they will absorb that and pass it on.

    I think teaching meditation in schools is one of the greatest skills we can give our children.

  7. I appreciate Lillian’s comments. Meditation, when done consistently, has a very positive effect on the meditator and all those around him/her. It frees people to truly not “sweat the small stuff.”

    However, based on life experience, hate is taught from an early age. Parents and peers hold enormous influence over the acquisition of such attitudes. Yes, as humans we do pass along learned behavior. Meditation can be one of those behaviors.

    We also need to teach tolerance and acceptance for ALL people. I am fortunate to be associated with one organization that does a very good job of that in Orange County, CA. You might want to check out http://www.ochumanrelations.org. If your community doesn’t have a program like this, it is worth considering.

    The school-based program BRIDGES does a world of good. From knowledge comes understanding.

  8. Thank you, Judy.

    You have illuminated the reason we have spent so much spirit creating and animating this site.

    Now, we are trying to use *form* to make that teaching of tolerance you speak of very interactive and immediate.

    Thank you so much for your message. paul