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Your Inner Chimp (Or Labrador Or Elephant) & Why It Matters In Stress Management

Models can be helpful in framing how to think about a complex problem and how to go about solving it. An example of a powerful model can be found in sports psychologist Steve Peters' book “The Chimp Paradox” where he posits the “chimp brain”: a system of brain circuits responsible for emotions and relatively primitive drives and motivations, and having something of the “personality” of a chimp. His book explains how to achieve optimal performance by effectively managing your chimp brain.

In his book “The Bulletproof Diet”, biohacking aficionado Dave Asprey offers a similar concept, the “Labrador brain”, rooted in the limbic circuits of the brain.

Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt presents a not-dissimilar model, or at least a metaphor for the mind, as consisting of two parts: the elephant and the rider. The rider is the rational, thinking mind, the planner, while the elephant is the doer, and of course the emotional mind.

What the models share in common is the idea that we are not (always) of one mind. The mind has different parts, or if you  prefer, the brain has different sub-systems, each having their own roles, concerns and spheres of influence, and which can “think” and act to a degree independently, pulling us at times in different directions. 

The image of the elephant conveys the great strength of emotions: if your rational mind is at odds with your emotional mind, there's no doubt who'll win out in the longer term.

The challenge of managing the mind (which includes managing stress, emotions, appetites) is about how to manage and relate to the inner chimp, or Labrador, or elephant. How do we get the best out of him (or her)?

This article is my take on that question. I present some general themes for how to work with your chimp. Although I'm using Steve Peters' metaphor I'm not trying to present his ideas but my own, although there may be some overlap.

How To Work With Your Inner Chimp

If I want to scratch my nose, I just will my finger to do it, and it happens. There's a sense that the finger does my bidding – I'm in control, I give the orders. (Philosophers might argue this is an illusion, but let's not go there right now.)

I think it's natural to adopt the same mindset whenever we want to “do” something, and even when we want to avoid doing something. So I might decide to not think about the presentation I have to give next week, and use my will to banish such thoughts from my mind. Trouble is, will doesn't work quite so well for thoughts and feelings, especially when there's some emotional salience involved (as there might be if I'm anxious about presentations). In that case, the inner chimp will have some say over what happens to that thought. And he's going to have his own ideas, his own needs, his own motivations. If you simply start giving orders, he might play up, he might decide to do the very opposite of what you want, like a child being told to go to bed.

Actually the image of your own mind being like a child is quite apposite. You're more likely to have had experience of children than chimps! With children, you have to set boundaries but you also have to give them freedom as well. You have to find the balance. Overly strict control tends to make things worse. This is analogous to the internal “quicksand trap” in the mind, that I've talked about in other articles, including stress - what is the real problem? and why trying harder often makes things worse.

So how do you get the chimp to do what you want if not by will-power? I'll take up the story again in the next article in this series on working with your inner chimp.

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