Sunday, March 12, 2023

The Chimp Paradox

 ​​*this post is inspired by the book The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters*

A quest to understand how to change habits for longer than 24 hours before springing back into old ways led me to this awesome book and I recommend it to anyone who wishes to better understand their own brain.

Steve Peters describes how ultimately, as humans many of our interactions/ responses/ habits are driven by our internal drives/ states and need to survive - this unconscious activity takes place in the Limbic System of the brain a.k.a the ‘inner chimp’. Of course we also have logic, perspective and the ability to reason (taking place in the prefrontal cortex); however, these abilities become moot if our sense of safety is under threat, as they naturally take the back seat. 

The key here is that our inner chimp is acting instinctively to the provocations around him and is not in the control of the individual within whom's brain he resides. He makes his own rules and holds much of the control (unless you learn how to control him). I like the chimp analogy as it is a simple and effective way of explaining the behaviors we have that we know may be unreasonable, unhelpful or unhealthy, yet we can’t stop doing. - similar to how a chimp may behave, this part of us may be illogical and irrational. Some examples of this may be acting out with jealousy over a partner, having an emotional outburst you later regret, drinking alcohol more often than you would like etc etc. These are examples of our chimp acting out driven by the limbic system (emotional) whilst the prefrontal cortex (logical) was having a nap. For context, the limbic system is said to work approximately 200X faster than the prefrontal cortex. 

Since the inner chimp is such a speedy little shit, we instinctively act based on our emotions or innate drives such as to stay safe, belong within a community etc rather than our LOGIC which is factual based. The other problem is, our day to day life in 2023 is full of stressors that build up or that the brain can misinterpret as a threat to life. For example, being stuck in traffic when you’re late to work won’t end your life but it may well cause your inner chimp to flare up, hijacking your day as your body begins to flood with adrenaline and cortisol; you then find yourself with little tolerance for the morning, snapping at every Tom dick and harry until your body has returned to baseline and your chimp has calmed down. 

What is more, though it was previously thought the inner chimp was responsible only for anxiety and fear based responses, it is now known that it is also home to the reward circuit. With this, the chimp is always looking for the next reward i.e. ignoring your achievements and driving you to be constantly looking for more.

These are just some examples of how our inner chimp can make living in this human world so difficult. The reason I believe all this significant is because it has become human nature to beat ourselves up over so many of these behaviours; reacting emotionally rather than calmly, choosing an unhealthy rewarding meal over a healthy one; we often look to ourselves to blame when really, our actions are just reflective of an an uncontrolled chimp.

Step 1 to mastering the chimp is being aware of when your chimp is taking over. 


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