Chimp Brain

Why sometimes our brains can be our own worst enemy

By the end of this article you will know why your brain responds like it does sometimes, and what is happening in other people’s brains when you speak to them. You will then be able to alter your communication to avoid the kind of confrontations you have had in the past and calmly get a message delivered, whether at home or in the workplace. You’ll feel calmer and more in control.

The name chimp brain is based on a book by Steve Peters called The Chimp Paradox, a psychologist who has worked with a lot of sports people. You might have heard other names for our chimp brain, like lizard brain, old brain, prehistoric brain - they all mean the same.

The chimp brain is the very old part of our brain that is concerned with keeping us safe. Now that was really useful in the old days when we needed to be much more alert to predators and dangers but now it has transferred its attention to fear for our self-esteem and social standing preservation. So anything that affects us in those areas, or might affect our self-esteem and social standing alerts the chimp brain. The chimp brain responds emotionally, and very quickly, in order to warn us to avoid any danger. The problem with that is that when the chimp brain responds, the brain takes blood from the rational part of our brain in order to feed the chimp, so it can protect us. But unfortunately this doesn’t protect us as often as it thinks it’s protecting us, in fact it can really get in the way. When we want to communicate with someone calmly then we need to be talking to the rational part of the brain, we do not want to wake the chimp, as the chimp gets in the way of our rational understanding about what needs to be done and clouds it with defensive reactions such as, whose fault it is (someone else’s), a shirking of responsibility (you do that too), deflection “I only do that because you do this” and many more. But what the chimp isn’t good at is calmly accepting that whoever’s fault it is, whatever anyone else does, it’s our responsibility to control and change and behaviour that isn’t helping us or others around us live a calm and happy life.

The chimp brain is very alert and will respond to things like tone of voice, angle of head. It is very alert to patronising as that’s not good for our self esteem, it’s alert to criticism for the same reason. It’s especially alert to criticism in public as it’s concerned with our social standing. It’s very alert to criticism regarding our performance because that concerns how it feels about itself too.

If you think about the phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ around someone, that’s because you are scared of awakening their chimp, because chimps aren’t easy or pleasant to deal with.

In order to bypass the chimp we need to appeal to the rational mind with the very first thing we say. If we alert the chimp brain then it might already be too late. This means addressing negative messages as positives, which sounds fluffy and nonsense but really is the best way to get through to a person that what they’re doing is wrong or unacceptable or not good enough. So if you’re dealing with a negative colleague or a defensive teenager, you need to take responsibility for not waking their chimp when you communicate with them. If you say to yourself, ‘it’s their problem, they need to get over it’, you are shirking responsibility for getting the results that need getting and being just as bad as them.

So what happens when people hear negative things about themselves or when they think they’re about to hear negative things about themselves? If you think about the last time you heard something negative about yourself you can probably recall that the little voice inside your head wakes up immediately and responds in a certain way. This is usually defensively, or angrily or it berates you internally for not being good enough and beats you up so that you feel dreadful. The first 2 responses, those of anger and defensiveness tend to mean that you don’t continue to listen to the rest of the conversation as you’re so busy thinking about why it’s someone else’s fault that you behave that way. Because of this reaction, what is said to you that provokes that response remains as a vivid memory in your brain but what was said afterwards is generally a complete blank.

In order to deliver a negative message and get a positive response then, we need to bypass the part of the brain that is concerned with this response, and that’s often referred to as the chimp brain.

If your own chimp brain is a problem then you need to practise pressing the pause button. It only takes your rational brain less than a second to catch up with your chimp brain and attempt to impose order. If you can keep your mouth shut and your face neutral for that second you are much more likely to be able to respond rationally rather than emotionally to the situation.

The ability to press the pause button is something that a lot of people say they get out of our Inspirational Leadership Programme and that it has changed their lives. I also found this too. Life is calm now, whatever happens, even when the work volume is overwhelming, my daughter is asking me 50 questions an hour, and my husband hasn’t taken the bins out. I might feel tense, or outraged, or furious inside (though that doesn’t really happen either now) but I can continue to operate and communicate in a calm manner. There’s nothing stopping you saying, “I’m really quite frustrated now” or “I’m feeling very angry” if you want people to know how you feel, you don’t have to act it out. Acting out your emotions is what a child does or a teenager, because they don’t know any better. You know better, especially now.

On that note, I just want to caveat the not acting out your emotions side of things. Being generally of a calm and controlled demeanour is good for leadership, it’s great for parenting, and it’s good for your own mental health, but there are still times when acting out your emotions can be beneficial. For a start in your own mental health, if you are angry and acting calmly doesn’t dissipate that anger then it can be good to tell someone about how you feel, or do something that allows you to express it - it might be exercise, singing loudly, dancing energetically, speaking to a friend or counsellor, throwing something on the floor (hopefully not breakable). But that this is done in a relatively controlled manner is good. Not spilled out where it can inflict damage on someone else or your relationship with someone else, or your reputation.

Also, sometimes it can be a good tool to use to communicate with someone to let your emotions out. If you have tried all the other methods of mature communication, sometimes letting people know that you feel incredibly frustrated, or angry can be a great way of giving them a shock of realisation that they really need to get their act together.

It’s not that we want you to be an automaton, it’s that we want you to be able to choose when and where an emotional reaction is appropriate and useful, rather than just defaulting to an emotional chimp reaction because 9 out of 10 times it isn’t helpful.

People always tell me I’m so calm, and I am, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t emotions inside my head, or even inside my body. But I can separate my reaction from them, most of the time. Obviously if a very sad thing happens I react emotionally, but if something upsets me because it rouses my chimp, I can press the pause button, breathe calmly and let my rational brain catch up. I can think, “I know that behaviour has just really upset me, but to get the best out of this situation I need not to say anything now, I’ll say something later, when we’re all calm, if I decide that I need to, but for now, I’m going to just calmly carry on.” That thought takes fractions of a second. And the more you practise pressing the pause button, the easier it gets, and the less you have to do it because your chimp knows it’s nothing worth even being ready to react about. It stays calmly in its box.

Have a think to yourself now when you think your chimp gets out of its box. Write down 3 instances when you know your chimp gets out of hand and ends up running the show. Then ask 3 trusted friends and colleagues when they think your chimp gets out of hand, when do you react emotionally when a rational reaction would be better? Now work on keeping that chimp calm, and in doing so you will get better at keeping everyone else’s chimps in their boxes too.