The Mindful Chimp
by Christopher Joseph
We all have times when someone or something pushes our buttons and we react. In his book “The Chimp Paradox” Professor Steve Peters labels this reactionary emotional part of our brain as the ‘inner Chimp’! Whilst we may not choose the same label as Professor Peters to describe this aspect of our own mind we can probably relate to it within ourselves… I certainly can!
Peters in his book takes quite complex information about the physical structure of our brain and creates a simplified intuitive psychological model that explains how each component contributes to the inner experience of our minds on a daily basis. The three main components of his model for the mind are the ‘inner Chimp’, the ‘Human’ and the ‘Computer’.
The inner Chimp is the emotional part of our brain, designed by evolution from a prehistoric past to support our survival. Its thinking is based on interpretations and impressions rather than facts about a situation. It’s rooted in feelings of fear, paranoia and the need for survival.
The Human mind considers the evidence and uses cognition to reach careful and deliberate conclusions. It’s said to be where our highest values as humans reside, and it can be considered to be ‘us’ i.e. the you or me that we wish to be in this world. The Human and the Chimp have independent personalities with different agendas, ways of thinking, and modes of operating.
The third component, termed the Computer, is our bank of memorised automatic habits, responses and experiences. Some of these we will view as ‘bad’ and some ‘good’, and this is where both our Chimp and our Human facets look for similar experiences that they will associate with when processing what’s currently happening to us.
In his simplified model Stevens equates the Human, the Chimp and the Computer to the three psychological brains, namely the frontal, limbic and parietal. Usually these three brain regions work together, but sometimes one of them can take over complete control! If the Chimp within us takes over then we can become emotionally reactionary. Depending on the context of the situation this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Chimp can be your best friend but it can also be your worst enemy, even at the same time! Therein lies the paradox.
A key point in explaining why our emotional inner Chimp can react so quickly is that the limbic system with which it is associated works about five times quicker than the Human frontal lobe.
So, what’s all this got to do with mindfulness?
Quite a lot I believe! I think that Stevens’ model, all be it very simplified, can be a useful framework for working with the mind during mediation as well as daily life.
Mindfulness can offer us a very powerful and effective means of: understanding; befriending, and managing our Chimp, so that our true Human side can become ever more prominent and flourish.
The first stage of mindfulness is developing present moment awareness of what’s going on for us right now. With practice, over time our awareness will expand to include insights and an understanding of the emotional, potentially reactionary side of our minds – our ‘inner Chimp’. We will come to learn when, how and why it reacts the way it does, and through greater understanding of our Chimp we will be far better placed to make wiser decisions and choices in the future.
Another key element of mindfulness is maintaining a kind, light-hearted and non-judgmental attitude towards ourselves, and this of course includes our Chimp. We need to befriend our Chimp. Stevens’ models is very useful in this respect as he makes the clear distinction between us the Human, and our primeval reactionary Chimp. This ancient part of our brain was designed through natural selection to keep us safe in a very dangerous prehistoric past. However, it’s fast, strong and often vicious responses don’t often help resolve many of the complex 21st century challenges we are now faced with. The Chimp is always active when we are unsettled or worried, it tends to think in black and white absolute terms, can be prone to paranoia, and often catastrophises things.
At times when our emotions dictate our behaviour, and we react to a situation, the emotional machine that is our Chimp is in effect overpowering our Human mind. I think at times like these when we may speak or act in ways we later regret, it’s useful to remember that we are not our Chimp – we are not a ‘bad’ person beyond help! We’ve simply been momentarily hijacked by our five times stronger Chimp.
Recognising that our unhelpful reactionary behaviour is the result of our Chimp and not us (the Human) can be a very useful distinction in preventing over identification with our unruly Chimp which can lead to us mentally ‘beating ourselves up’, causing self-loathing, low self-esteem and over time depression.
This doesn’t absolve us of responsibility, however, and we can’t simply go around blaming our bad behavior on our Chimp! Having a Chimp is like owning a dog. You are not responsible for the nature of the dog but you are responsible for managing its behavior. Likewise with our minds – we’re not responsible for the fundamental nature of our mind but we are responsible for managing and training it.
Whilst the primeval reactionary aspect of the mind might not be something we have any say over when we’re born, we certainly do have a responsibility to understand, befriend and manage it so that it doesn’t hurt us or the people around us. Since the Chimp aspect of our mind is driven and feeds off our insecurities, then practicing meditations based on kindly acceptance of ourselves and kindness towards others is a vital component in befriending and quietening down our Chimp, so that we can respond more fully as a Human.
The Chimp brain is five times faster than the Human brain but the Computer brain is four times faster than the Chimp and twenty times faster than the Human. Because of this important fact we can use the Computer part of our brain, our automated habits, to initiate responses faster than the Chimp can react. Establishing new habits, by their very nature takes time and practice. This is where the true benefits of establishing a regular mindfulness practice really bear fruit. Mindfulness meditation is effectively a process of retraining our mind, in a good way.
In the body scan meditation for example we are training our mind to come back from distractive thoughts and to rest in an awareness of the present moment felt sensations in our body. In the mindfulness of breathing meditation we are similarly training our minds to come back time and time again to the physical sensations of our breath in the present moment. With kindness meditation practices, whether it’s kindness towards ourselves, a friend or others we are also practicing a new more flexible way of looking at our own experience and our attitude towards others.
On a practical level for example, when someone is unkind to us such as cutting us up in traffic, instead of letting the Chimp react with energetic hand gestures, flashing lights and a loud horn, you can remind yourself that they might be having a very difficult day, have an emergency to get to or simply didn’t see you and made a genuine mistake. In doing so you are far more likely to arrive safely at your own destination and in a good mood than if you let your Chimp do the driving!
Through regularly practicing mindfulness both during meditation and our everyday lives, we are choosing a new way of being: we are creating new grooves, laying down new neural pathways in the brain and establishing new positive habits.
So, next time you sense your ‘Chimp’ beginning to play up, remember to smile, be kind and to meditate!