The Chimp Paradox

I am in the process of reading Dr Steve Peters’ book on mind management, ‘The Chimp Paradox’. It comes highly recommended, as Dr Peters is a consultant psychiatrist who has worked since 2001 with the British Cycling team and has obviously taken their achievements to great heights during this time. A ringing endorsement by Sir Chris Hoy is stamped on the front cover of my copy: ‘The mind programme that helped me win my Olympic Golds’.

Dr Peters’ model is for achieving success in life is based around an understanding of the human brain and how it works, and he focuses on three particular parts of the brain (or, as he describes it, three of the seven brains that make up what we usually describe as our brain – the frontal brain (which he calls the ‘Human’ brain), the parietal brain (which he calls the Computer), and the limbic brain, the primitive brain in side each of us, which he calls the ‘Chimp’ brain. It is this brain – the emotional machine within us – that can cause us to act in ways that we think we shouldn’t, and I was very struck when I read this key point he makes at an early point in the book (page 11, in fact): ‘You are not responsible for the nature of your Chimp, but you are responsible for managing it.’

He is absolutely right, of course – we need to take responsibility for our actions, and we cannot simply blame someone else, or our ‘natural instincts’, or any such aspect of our emotional being, when we do things which harm others. Nor is it our inalienable right to do whatever we choose, without respecting boundaries, when we are with and around others. It is up to us to manage ourselves. In fact, this concept transfers to society as well – as a social grouping, be it local, or national, or global, we cannot be responsible for the essence of our emotional natures, but we can and should be responsible for managing ourselves and others so that we can all function harmoniously. All too often we shy away from thinking along these lines, for fear that we will impinge on the liberty of our fellow human beings, when in fact we need to recognise that to enable others (and ourselves) to live and work together with ease and freedom, we must manage and work within boundaries.

The concept of society is a fascinating one. Undeniably, we are drawn together as human beings in social groups, and what differentiates us from chimpanzees is the wisdom to learn how to manage these groups. This is what we should be teaching in schools.

Back to Dr Peters’ book now …

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