We All Have Monkey Brains...

We all have times when we do things that we look at and think, "why did I just do that?" It might be that we snapped at someone we loved, engaged in some road rage, ate 14 chocolate bars, or procrastinated for 6 hours doing junk instead doing the training that we had scheduled that day. Most of the time, when this is the case, we make our error, and then, shortly afterward, if you're anything like me, you are overcome by frustration at your inability to make the choice that you would rather prioritise.

In the book, The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters talks about this phenomena. Peters is renowned for working with the British cycling team, and being a part of their transformation from also rans, to world beaters at the 2012 Olympic games - along with his work with other leading sportspeople. In the Chimp Paradox, Peters puts forth his theory on how the brain works, and how to work with your brain to ensure that you are able to get the outcomes that you really desire.

According to Peters, things such as eating well and training regularly, that you've planned to do and really want to do, maybe being sabotaged at an instinctual level rather than being a deliberate choice that we had significant control over. This instinctual level is described as our 'chimp brain'.

Our Chimp brain is apparently a bit like a dog. We can't control our dog's nature, but we are responsible for how it expresses itself. I'll come back to this when I look at some of the solutions that Peters offers.

Some of you are thinking right now, "surely this is just a cop-out, how do we even know if it is our 'chimp brain' or just us making excuses for our poor choices." The easiest way, is to look back on our choice or behaviour and ask, did I really want to do that? If you didn't, then it is likely that your chimp brain was making the decision.

Our chimp brain, or our Limbic System as scientists might know it, can either work with us or against us. It works faster than our rational mind and tends to be more powerful as well. So if your chimp brain wants an outcome, you're going to be in a hugely uphill battle to work against it.

So how do we overcome this powerful, swift beast?

Peters refers to a third incredibly powerful component in our brain called, the computer. The computer is crazily quick, and when it starts a process, the chimp and our rational mind tend to just roll with it, cause it's done already.

In this area, lies the power of habit. If we have programmed our brain to work in a certain way, by deliberately setting ourselves up beforehand, then we can utilise our computer brain to automatically take us in the direction that we want. I was reading an article from the blog, Routine Excellence, and he gave some great examples about how we can get this going in the beginning.

In the article he talks about setting things up so that they happen automatically - he lays his clothes on his bed so that he doesn't flop down and veg out for 'a minute'. This action allows him to come home, and automatically go through the process of going to the gym, without him having to fight his chimp. The second you lie down, or sit down, for 'a minute' you start to do battle with your chimp. Your chimp says, "ooh, this is nice! I think I'd rather relax than exert the energy here..." and essentially you're stuffed.

The other thing that Ben does that allows him to corral his chimp brain, is he gives himself a reasonable reward at the end of his gym session, in particular, he gives himself a community focused reward. Our chimps love to hang out in a troupe. If we can make it so that we have something that we genuinely look forward to about our training, then we are far more likely to find that our human motivator and our chimp brain are in alignment. This makes doing almost anything super easy.

I can definitely sympathise with this. I don't actually enjoy going in to train a lot of the time, I enjoy lifting heavy things, but I find the process of getting there difficult. Doing things with a friend, or with a couple of friends, makes the whole process really, really easy. I don't even have to talk to them once I'm there, half of the time, I'd rather not, but just having the other person there makes a huge difference.

This doesn't just apply to training either. You can use this process with anything that you want to do. I quite enjoy folding washing with my daughter - she's terrible at folding washing and makes the whole process take longer, but she buzzes around and thinks it's the best activity ever, and I treasure the fact that we are doing something productive while we enjoy each other.

The Dog Thing

Your chimp brain is like the dog. The things above allow us to either distract it, fatigue it, or train it ahead of time so that we aren't having to have the fight every single time. And if we do have to fight the dog, we need to know what treats it likes, because this particular dog is bigger and stronger than us, and if it doesn't want to play, it's not playing...

Ultimately, I've only just begun to scratch the surface of the Chimp Paradox. It's a really in-depth book, and unfortunately, I left writing this a week and so some of his solutions are not as fresh for me as they were, but I do think that Benyamin Elias's blog post is a definite must-read, because all of his steps are things that give us concrete behaviours towards setting up a consistent habit, and doing the things he talks about, are things that work with or around our chimp brains.

The last thing that I have to add, is this: everyone does things that they wish they didn't, these things don't define them. Being unable to control your chimp, doesn't make you a bad person (although it will almost certainly make you do things you wish you hadn't and that may be bad things), it simply makes you an unprepared person. Everyone has the capacity to be excellent. The ability to consistently apply yourself to the practices that will draw you to excellence are critical.


Thanks for reading.

Move Well. Be Strong.


Piers has a background as a secondary science teacher, and has been involved with the hardstyle kettlebell movement in Australia for almost 6 years.  Piers has studied under Pavel Tsatsouline and has completed a variety of kettlebell certifications, and is a recognised Original Strength coach. Piers' crowning achievement as a coach is the great bunch of people that he gets to spend time with and being a part of a great culture week in, week out at QKB in East Brisbane.