Chimp or Human?

A client recently recommended Steve Peters’ book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ to me, and I’ve been reading it for the last week or so.  Dr Peters is well known as a psychologist in the sports world, working with Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Liverpool FC and many others.

The key idea of the book is to think of our minds as having three essential components – the chimp (a personalisation of the limbic brain) the human (the frontal area of the brain) and the computer (the parietal).  The chimp acts and reacts emotionally, driven by the need to survive and replicate its genes; the human considers and acts logically, looking to achieve fulfilment; the computer simply stores material (both facts and patterns and automatic reactions) which the chimp and human use.

His key distinction is this: if you experience an emotion which you don’t welcome, it is the chimp playing up.  So when we are angry, upset, anxious and so on, we recognise that we are dealing with a primitive drive within us.  But, he says, you yourself are the human – you are the rational being you would like to be.  You are not the chimp.  You are  a human, and it is your job to control the chimp within, much as a dog owner has to control a dog.

Of course, this is just a model – I expect the line between chimp and human is pretty grey in reality. But it is a hugely useful model.  It enables us to create a dialogue within ourselves, and it empowers us to deal with the feelings and behaviours we don’t like.

So – do you want to be a chimp, or a human?

The Glory of the Paralympics

Paralympians have found a way of working with their limitations which has released them into being exceptional.  Their humanity, their vulnerability, is right there on the surface: in a ‘missing’ arm, or some neural connections that don’t function perfectly, or a severed spinal column.

It’s true there are things they can’t do.  They know that.  If you run on blades, you can’t also wiggle your toes in the sand, because you have no toes.

But what inspires me about the Paralympics is that the athletes haven’t made the illogical reverse assumption that because they can’t wiggle toes in the sand, they can’t run fast.  Oscar Pistorius and the rest of them run (or roll) a whole lot faster than I ever have done, and they do it by focussing on what they can do, not on what they can’t do.

There may be things you really can’t do.  Your humanity and vulnerability may be hidden: a phobia about flying, a deep anxiety about getting close to someone, a difficulty reading, a fear of losing control or being responsible for others.

But Paralympians show us that the glory of being human is that we’re so much less limited than we think we are.