Ever wondered why you set intentions such as going on a diet or stopping to smoke only to find yourself not being able to resist? If so, then this blog might shed some lights on the reasons behind some of our behaviours.

As I am researching for my forthcoming book The flourishing student: every tutor’s guide to promoting mental health, resilience and well being in Higher Education, I interviewed Dr Anna Waters who has a doctorate in Sports Psychology and started her life as a jockey and horse racing and is now Psychological Skills Mentor at the Chimp Management Ltd. She now works exclusively using the ‘Chimp Model’.

The idea was to discuss how relevant this model is for students and staff in education and how useful it could be. We had a wonderful conversation and I have learned lots in the process.

I will write another post expanding further on several aspects of the ‘Chimp Model’ and the ‘Chimp Paradox’ but for now I just want to share a couple of points to get you thinking…

The chimp, the human and the computer

The ‘chimp’ model applies to everyone. If you have a brain, it applies to you!

It is a representation of how the different ‘teams’ in our brain work. Professor Steve Peters has taken the neuroscience and simplified it to three key components:

  • The front part of your brain also known as ‘prefrontal cortex’ which is the rational, logical thinking part also known as ‘the human’.
  • In the middle, in  ‘the limbic system’, you have the chimp which is your emotional thinking brain.
  • The other parts of the brain which he called the ‘computer’, which is like a reference library where you store previous experiences as well as helpful and unhelpful beliefs.

The main difference with this system is that it believes that the chimp part of your brain thinks independently of you, something that other models and therapies don’t always acknowledge.

For example: if you are on a diet and you are going for a cup of coffee with a friend but you are not going to have a piece of cake and then suddenly you find that you have a piece of cake on your plate. Why do we do things like that?

If we were completely in control of our brains then we wouldn’t be behaving like that.

If an alien came down from space and observed us they may wonder and ask: Why do these people say they won’t do this or won’t do that and then suddenly you see them actually doing it.

So what’s the reason for this separation?

It is the way the brain operates. Information comes into the brain via our senses (i.e sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch which are the five traditionally recognized),. The emotional part of the brain’s main agenda is your survival and the survival of the species. That’s your safety mechanism. It reacts to emotions and impressions. Information comes to this part of your brain first so that if you are in immediate danger then that part of the brain will go into the fight/flight/freeze response (more on this in another blog post). That was extremely useful for our ancestors when a saber tooth tiger chased them or if a lion suddenly turns up in the room and you need to get out as soon as possible but it may not be so useful if you are a student going into an exam and you are feeling very nervous and you have that adrenaline going round your body.

The chimp always get the information first

The information received always goes first to that part of the brain and then the chimp sends and looks into what Professor Peters call ‘the computer part’ of the brain to see how to respond. It looks if there are any memories about the information coming in or how to respond to that information. This all goes back to that chimp part of your brain and if it is happy that it can cope with the situation it goes to sleep by releasing the blood flow so that your human or computer can take ove but if it is considered to be a dangerous situation it keeps hold of the blood flow and that’s when you would have a ‘chimp highjack’ where you might behave in a way that you don’t really want to or say something you don’t want to or get very annoyed about something.

That chimp part of the brain sits in the limbic system which contains the amygdala where we store our emotional memories.

Remember Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt during the World Cup Final in 2006? This is a prime example of a ‘chimp highjack’.

We will discuss more about the chimp model and the chimp paradox in our next post.

Do you have examples about some of your own ‘chimp highjacks’? Feel free to share with us below.

Flourishing Education