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For sports people, ‘getting the monkey off your back’ can mean the difference between victory and defeat, promotion or relegation. It is a serious business.
Prof Steve Peters is Clinical Senior Lecturer and Undergraduate Dean at Sheffield Medical School. He has worked with some of the best-known high-performance sports personalities in an effort to help them maximise their potential and manage their minds. The England rugby squad, world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan and the English national football team have all had cause to see Prof Peters. He is also a consultant to the British Cycling Team and Sky ProCycling, by all accounts a happy relationship. According to The Independent, British cyclists Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy said they would not have won their Olympic gold medals without him.
The reason? ‘Chimp Management’ — a mind-management model that helps people in pressurised, high-performance environments to manage their emotions and thoughts and develop a heightened awareness of how their mind is working.
Despite the eccentric name, this technique is grounded in evidence-based neuroscience, says Prof Peters, and its ultimate aim is to help people improve the quality of people’s lives, both personally and professionally.
Prof Peters explains that the basic model of Chimp Management simplifies the complexity of neuroscience into three ‘teams’, which work within the brain and use other parts of the mind to their advantage. These teams are ‘the Chimp’; the Human; and the ‘Computer’.
The Chimp makes decisions based on immediate gratification and has its own way of working, which is impulsive. It also has its own agenda. It is not under our control – we can only manage it, but it is stronger than us
“The Human is you and represents your values, your preferred way of working and your agenda,” he says. “The Chimp is an active interpreting system that uses emotional thinking and feelings and impressions. It makes decisions based on immediate gratification and has its own way or working, which is impulsive. It also has its own agenda. The Chimp is not under our control — we can only manage it, but it is stronger than us.
“The Computer is a system that can run our lives and has input from both Human and Chimp. If it is programmed correctly, it can help us immensely but if it has gremlins in the system, then it can lead us to hold very destructive beliefs and behaviours. The Computer needs constant attention from the Human to keep it functioning to our advantage. It is the fastest part of our brain and acts automatically,” says Prof Peters, who is author of The Chimp Paradox and CEO of consultancy firm Chimp Management.
“Here is a simple example that most of us can probably relate to, to demonstrate the principle,” he tells the Medical Independent (MI). “We, as humans, know how to eat healthily and how much to eat. We intend to do this. The Chimp acts impulsively, drives for immediate gratification, but it also fools us by rationalising away our intentions. It convinces us to act without thinking of the consequence. We eat almost against our own wishes and plans. After the Chimp has ‘won’, we are later left perplexed, and almost confused, as to why we just can’t do something as simple as eat sensibly.”
While the Chimp is powerful, it can be controlled, or at least managed, says Prof Peters. Once this principle has been established — that we can control our impulses — it can then be applied to multiple situations across the whole of our lives.
Understanding and insight
“It is helping people to gain an understanding with insight and then develop emotional skills so that they can manage their mind and get it to function in the way that they want it to.”
Prof Peters tells MI about the initial inspiration to develop the model: “I have been a Clinical Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Medical School for over 20 years and as part of my role, I taught the undergraduate psychiatry course for many years,” he explains.
“The students wanted to understand the neuroscience of the mind in a way in which they could access and apply it to themselves, as well as their patients. The Chimp Paradox is a model to do just that. So it’s not really a theory or scientific fact, but is based on these. It is a way of understanding how the mind works and the main scientific and psychological principles by which we operate from day-to-day.”
I do think we should encourage both students and doctors to take self-care and self-development seriously
The approach taken when applying the Chimp Paradox draws on many branches of science, he explains.
“I specifically wanted to encompass many aspects already covered by other therapies and to draw them all together so that we can have a comprehensive approach towards the mind. So I have taken behavioural, cognitive, developmental, dynamic and biological sciences and brought them together.
“The real difference between this model and others is that I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the mind works without our conscious input. We have an independent interpreting and thinking part of the brain that has its own agenda [the ‘Chimp’]. So we cannot ‘own’ some of the thoughts and behaviours that are imposed upon us but we can, and do, have a responsibility to manage them.
“So the model introduces the brain system that works independently of us and this system I called ‘the Chimp’. We share this system with chimpanzees and other hominids, so it’s not a great surprise to see so many similarities between us and them,” he tells MI.
Despite the list of luminaries with whom Prof Peters has worked, he tells MI that the model has a much broader application in terms of general mental health. Many people have benefitted greatly from its application, he explains.
“I am pleased and humbled to say that I have had emails and letters from the general public who have explained how they have used the model to manage or remove many psychological issues,” he says.
“Mostly, these are of a personal nature but also include conditions such as alcohol dependence, eating disorders, social phobias, anxiety, depression and mood swings. The biggest impact has been on the quality of life that people report they have found, including relationships, both personal and professional. The model was brought into being exactly for this reason — it was to help people to understand themselves, gain personal insight and to manage their emotions and behaviours by utilising this understanding. So confidence and raised self-esteem were also high on the list of the outcomes I hoped it would achieve.”
Most of the time, my Chimp is like everyone else’s and needs firm management, otherwise we both end up in trouble
So does the system work differently for athletes and members of the public?
“It’s not really [different],” he tells MI. “At the end of the day, although we are all unique, we share the same structures in our minds. The difference is in where we choose to live and work and whom we associate with and how we deal with these aspects of our lives. So clearly there are pressures unique to sports stars, but there are pressures unique to any sphere of society.
“The ground rules are the same — get to understand your unique self and how your mind works, develop skills to manage your mind and then apply these skills to your own world.”
Challenges for doctors
This may have relevance for doctors. As high-performance professionals, they face many challenges that require them to manage their thoughts and emotions. They too can benefit from controlling their ‘Chimp’ in a variety of different situations, Prof Peters believes.
“I have worked with many doctors and am pleased to say they have found it very helpful,” he says. “The principle of how I work is to establish what the person wants to achieve. We then check to see if it is really what they want and if it is realistic. Working together as a team, we find out how to achieve this. The first step is nearly always to be at ease with yourself and to gain perspective.
“Most doctors live in a potentially stressful environment, so being realistic about what can be changed is important,” he elaborates. “It’s often more about being practical and learning to deal with any situation in a positive and constructive way than it is about trying to ‘change the impossible’. To do this, I think we need to recognise the way that our minds are divided and how each of the systems tries to work differently when it comes to decision-making and reacting to situations.”
For people whose work life is dictated by results, this understanding can be crucial.
“There are similarities in the way that most professionals work,” he tells MI. “These similarities are often just dressed up differently and set within a different environment, but the principles are the same. Both doctors and high-performance athletes experience imposed outcome measures and many uncontrollables that they are expected to deal with.”
In view of efforts to expand medical training in recent years to better equip doctors to deal with patients and manage their own stress, MI asked Prof Peters if he would be in favour of introducing ‘Chimp Management’ training for the medical profession, perhaps for medical students.
“I am in favour of everyone being encouraged to reflect and understand themselves and others better,” he responds. “I think that each person could find a model, theory or therapy that they could relate to and that works for him or her.
“There are numerous excellent models and techniques out there. The Chimp model is not for everyone — it’s for those who relate to it and can see how to use it for their benefit. So I do think we should encourage both students and doctors to take self-care and self-development seriously.
“It can have such great rewards, not just for the doctor, but also for those who come into contact with them, both personally and professionally.”
But are there doctors from any particular specialties who could especially benefit from the system? “So far, I have had specific involvement with GPs, anaesthetists, surgeons and accident and emergency doctors,” says Prof Peters. “There have also been individuals in other branches of medicine. These involvements have varied from personal development, across to the practical programming of the mind, to deal with emergency situations. This is where the ‘Computer’ part of the brain comes in to outrun the ‘Chimp’.”
The model can also be useful for patients with extreme anxiety and can be used in combination with medications, but only in very specific circumstances, explains Prof Peters: “Yes, I think it can be useful,” he tells MI.
“As a doctor, I am not advocating that the model could be used to replace treatment of an illness. When an illness merits medication, then clearly this is required.
“However, I think it is helpful to engage the patient, whatever the illness, to give them an understanding of what is happening. I am aware that cognitive behavioural methods have had some success as an adjunct to treating psychosis, for example.”
In terms of fellow medical professionals, does Prof Peters ever see other doctors who allow their Chimp to ‘take control’?
“Every day. Sadly, most of us can recognise when our Chimps are taking control but struggle to manage them. Certainly, most of us can recognise with hindsight when we have acted in an emotional manner or with emotional thinking.
“However, the Chimp is not just about emotion. The Chimp represents a system that has an agenda and way of working, and this may on occasion not show much emotion at all.
“It’s also important to appreciate that Chimps vary. Some people’s Chimps are very easy-going and undemanding but most of us have noisy, demanding and difficult ones.”
Even with all of his experience and training, are there ever times when Prof Peters feels that his own Chimp is trying to ‘take control’, and if so, in what circumstances?
“Yes,” he responds emphatically. “It is important to recognise that the book was named The Chimp Paradox because sometimes it’s wise to allow the Chimp to take over. It’s not good, it’s not bad — it’s just a Chimp. The Chimp provides us with our intuition and can be our best friend in offering us excitement, positive emotions and motivation.
“However,” he continues, “most of the time, my Chimp is like everybody else’s and needs firm management, otherwise we both end up in trouble.
“My own Chimp has very strong drives towards helping others and when I see people being intimidated or bullied, for example, my Chimp tends to come out. This isn’t always helpful, so I try to manage him by explaining that I will represent him in my own way and not his way, as I do agree with his sentiments.”
In terms of the future, Prof Peters tells MI that he hopes the model will help people to gain perspective and quality in their lives and relationships.
“I wanted the model to help people to become confident and happy by recognising what is really going on in their minds and recognising how our own brain-machines impose so much upon us.
“In this way, I hope that destructive emotions such as guilt, low self-esteem, the beating-up of self and anxiety would be removed and replaced with confidence and happiness.
“This is my Chimp’s dream and mine also — we agree.”
Conflict in action: The competing areas of the brain
“There are at least two thinking and interpreting areas of the brain. The dorso-lateral edge is interpreting in a rational, logical way. The orbito-frontal cortex is interpreting by impression, feelings and emotions and has direct links to the amygdala. So this second way of thinking has ‘joined’ forces with the strongest emotional centre within the brain, the amygdala. What we now have, in effect, are two interpreting brains. One of them is virtually automatic and thinks for us without our input and is based on emotion. The other is under our control and allows us to think as we want to. The trouble is that these two ’brains’ do not think the same way and they do not typically agree on the interpretation of what is going on. We have a potential ‘battle’ within our heads going on all the time.”
Prof Peters on the principles of Chimp Management, taken from
A Chimp Management mind-map
In the Chimp Management model, Prof Peters uses a simplified division between six areas of the brain and their practical functions.
- The amygdala, a fast-acting defence mechanism that does not think but responds quickly.
- The orbito-frontal cortex, which acts by trying to control impulses and uses moral judgements to keep us within social norms.
- The uncinate fasciculus, a moral guide, providing us with a conscience and guilt.
- The dorso-lateral pre-frontal cortex, which works analytically, thinking with logic.
- The ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex, which considers the feelings of others and empathises.
- The cingulate cortex, which is involved in decision-making influenced by past experience