Friday, 14 March 2014

Mindfulness and The Chimp Paradox

"When you believe in your way enlightenment is there. But when you cannot believe in the meaning of the practice which you are doing in this moment, you cannot do anything. You are just wandering around the goal with your monkey mind. You are always looking for something without knowing what you are doing. If you want to see something, you should open your eyes." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p101.

The England Football team hired a sports psychologist, Dr Steve Peters, to help boost their performance in the 2014 Fifa World Cup. Peters' previous clients include the snooker champion Ronnie O'Sullivan and the gold medal cyclist Sir Chris Hoy.

He has authored a book outlining his methodology; involving a simplified model of the human mind, titled The Chimp Paradox: How Our Impulses and Emotions Can Determine Success and Happiness (2013). He explains the basic premises of the model as follows:
"The Psychological Mind is made up of three separate brains: Human, Chimp and Computer.
• You are the Human.
• Your Chimp is an emotional thinking machine.
• Your Computer is a storage area and automatic functioning machine.
• Any one of them can take complete control but usually they work together."
He says the reason for the presence of the chimp is genetic:
"When you were in the womb two different brains, the frontal (Human) and limbic (Chimp: an emotional machine), developed independently and then introduced themselves to each other by forming connections. The problem is that they found they were not in agreement about most things. Either of these two brains, or beings, could run your life for you but they try to work together, and therein is the problem. The Human and Chimp have independent personalities with different agendas, ways of thinking, and modes of operating. Effectively there are two beings in your head! It is important to grasp that only one of these beings is you, the Human. The Chimp is the emotional machine that we all possess. It thinks independently from us and can make decisions. It offers emotional thoughts and feelings that can be very constructive or very destructive; it is not good or bad, it is a Chimp."
And a little further on:
"To reiterate, the Chimp within your head is a separate entity to you. It was born when you were born but actually has nothing to do with you as a Human. It is simply part of your machinery. [...] It is a living machine that is built to serve a purpose, which is to ensure the next generation. It has a personality of its own and it can run your life for you, usually not very well, but it can do it! It is an extremely powerful emotional machine."
This chimp-like dimension is in line with what evolutionary psychologists posit as a kind of quick-acting survival instinct which carried our DNA through challenging circumstances to where we find ourselves today, as stated in Evolutionary Psychology - An Introduction (2004, Cambridge University Press), p299:
"Not responding to a life-threatening situation might have had dire consequences for our ancestors. [...] If there is one core emotion that has clear survival implications it must be fear. People who have no fear do not make for good ancestors. [...] Panic and agoraphobia, for example, may be seen as adaptations which prepare the body, both physiologically and psychologically, for attack. Blood circulation is re-routed to the muscles, and the mind becomes highly focused on finding escape routes. A number of evolutionists have argued that ‘negative’ emotions such as fear and anger generally serve to narrow the focus of attention and increase vigilance (see Fredrickson, 1998). Anyone who has ever felt either intense fear or complete rage will be aware that, once we are attending to the object of such negative emotions, we are not easily distracted from them. [...] Whereas fear is manifested by the urge to retreat, anger is clearly related to the urge to attack and injure. In either case the tendency to take action is quite specific."
Since we now have a lot more control over our environment and potential predators than we used to, there is not as much need to allow our chimp to run our lives as when we lived in forests or jungles. Dr Peters writes:
"The Chimp operates with a ‘Jungle Centre’ that is based on instincts and drives. The Jungle Centre is an area within the Chimp brain that gives the Chimp the characteristics and attitudes needed to survive in a jungle. This Centre contains beliefs and behaviours that work well in the jungle but not so well in a society! Major problems arise when the Chimp applies its jungle drives in a Human society."
The idea of a "monkey mind" lying at the core of our stress and unhappiness is also an idea at the centre of mindfulness - albeit a very ancient idea, as Diana Winston highlights in Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (2010), p44:
"Most of the time our minds are wandering all over the place, awash in a variety of stimuli. Some Hindu and Buddhist meditation texts compare our minds to chattering monkeys jumping from tree branch to tree branch—they call this “monkey mind.” Being generally aware, without a center focus point, is possible, but not easy. And in the long run it can be tiring or perhaps a little overwhelming."
Theravada Buddhist monk Ven. Henepola Gunaratana also refers to this in his book Mindfulness in Plain English (2011), p69:
"The monkey-mind phenomenon is well known. It is something that every seasoned meditator has had to deal with."
Peters illustrates the presence of monkey mind in The Chimp Paradox through the following example:
"‘Why do I sometimes become so irrational in my thinking?’ The answer may now be clear. It is not you thinking at all, but your Chimp taking over and thinking for you. The solution therefore is to understand how your Chimp thinks, recognise when it is taking over, and intervene."
This recognising is apparently left to chance by Dr Peters, however, as he gives the following advice:
"Try to improve your ability to recognise when your Chimp is hijacking you with thoughts, feelings and behaviours that you don’t want to have. By doing this, you are learning to recognise the difference between yourself and your Chimp and who is in control at any point in time. This will help to make clear that there are two brains operating within your head and only one of them is you."
He says that feeling emotional or uneasy is one indicator that the Chimp is in control:
"The easiest way of recognising that the Chimp is thinking for you is when either you are becoming emotional or you are calm but have uneasy feelings. Remember that the Chimp offers you its feelings and then you have to decide what to do with them. If you can recognise that the Chimp is using emotional thinking then you can address it with some specific techniques. For example, if the Chimp is thinking in black-and-white terms, stop and ask yourself what the alternatives are or if there is any middle ground."
However, it seems that noticing this in the first place and catching oneself can be tricky since many people tend to lack this level of habitual sensitivity and enter into emotional behaviour on autopilot. Paying a psychiatrist like Dr Peters to watch and notice on one's behalf could be beneficial, but it seems mindfulness can enhance our ability to notice when our monkey minds are running things beyond a hopeful intention or our limited finances, since mindfulness trains us to watch and notice and remain within our bodies with increasing ability as time moves on. It is strange that Dr Peters does not seem interested in harnessing and utilising this now well-known and rigorously tested mindfulness methodology, since it is being used by other sports psychologists to good effect in the NBA, American football, volleyball, and many other sports.

The closest he comes to recommending a regular meditation habit is what he refers to as daily 'development time':
"Simply put, ‘development time’ is time specifically set aside that is dedicated to reflecting on how you are managing yourself. You will benefit most from the model of the Chimp, the Human and the Computer if you spend time thinking through the concepts involved and then implementing them. The best way to make sure that you establish ‘development time’ is to make it into a habit. Habits are formed when they are easy to do. Therefore, setting aside a specific time in the day that is sacrosanct for development thinking will increase your chances of it happening regularly. This session must be easy to do otherwise your Chimp won’t agree and you won’t do it! So making the session just ten minutes long is more likely to establish the habit than making the session an hour long. Try to establish ten minutes a day. By reflecting during development time, the Human is reviewing what is in the Computer and modifying it. As we will see in future chapters, this is critical to managing your Chimp."
He outlines a number of strategies for managing the chimp - for example understanding that the chimp has needs - to feel physically secure, or have some personal space - and by meeting these needs then the chimp will be willing to listen to the human's plan:
"If you meet the needs of the Chimp first then the Chimp is in a position where you can talk to it and it will listen."
When stress is inevitable, however, then smiling and laughter can be an invaluable tool:
"Smile when you can. Depending on how serious the situation is, try to see the lighter side of it. Laugh at yourself if you have overreacted. Key Point Laughing at yourself, or situations, is one of the most powerful ways to remove stress from the Chimp."
Professor Mark Williams of Oxford Mindfulness Centre gives the same advice in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p106:
" may begin to smile at the way the mind works so cleverly to get back to its own agenda! And in the smile is the awakening, the coming back to a direct sense of what it is like to be fully alive in this moment."
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is also a big fan of smiling to one's habitual negative behaviours, as he states, for example, in Dharma Talk: Taking Good Care of Our Habit Energies, p8
"...the practice is to recognize the old habit, the negative habit, the bad habit, to recognize the energy of our habits and smile to them."
When stress hits and we find ourselves reacting emotionally, however, Dr Peters has a 7 step procedure which can be quite self-explanatory:
"1. Recognition and change
2. The pause button
3. Escape
4. The helicopter and getting perspective
5. The plan
6. Reflection and activation
7. Smile"
Mindfulness, however, offers a more sensitive and useful skill because it allows one to notice the build-up to emotional reaction as one's practice develops deeper, and then one has an opportunity to change one's circumstances - to relax the tension that is building up before emotions even kick off, or if it is too late to do that, akin to Dr Peters' methodology, to reframe what one is perceiving or make physical changes to oneself or one's environment so that one can recover one's peace and calm as quickly as possible. Ven. Henepola Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English:
"...put your effort on concentration at the beginning until the monkey mind phenomenon has cooled down a bit. After that, emphasize mindfulness. If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness. Overall, mindfulness is the one to emphasize."
Already one can see there are many overlaps between The Chimp Paradox methodology and mindfulness practice. Dr Peters even emphasises that one must accept impermanence in the here and now [bold his]:
"Your Chimp and its insecurity are driving this need for fixed elements in your life. Your Human needs to educate the Chimp. The main point here is that if you hold an expectation that anything in your life will remain constant then it is very likely to be a source of stress when it doesn’t. To remove stress you need to live in the here and now and accept that changes are normal and work with them for the future."
Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes exactly the same thing in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p247:
"The ultimate effect on our health of the total psychological stress we experience depends in large measure on how we come to perceive change itself, in all its various forms, and how skillful we are in adapting to continual change while maintaining our own inner balance and sense of coherence."
He then goes on to highlight the dependency of the above on being mindful:
"This in turn depends on the meaning we attribute to events, on our beliefs about life and ourselves, and particularly on how much awareness we can bring to our usually mindless and automatic reactions when our "buttons" are pushed. It is here, in our mind-body reactions to the occurrences in our lives that we find stressful, that mindfulness most needs to be applied and where its power to transform the quality of our lives can best be put to work."
Again, it is surprising that Dr Peters does not consider mindfulness - the focused practice of directly noticing and accepting whatever is necessary in the here and now - to be a useful method of living in the here and now while accepting change.

Still further philosophical overlaps exist, for example, regarding advice for practicing non-attachment - where The Chimp Paradox illustrates an aspect of 'monkey mind' which tends to stubbornly cling to whatever it has in it's grasp, often preventing us from being free to pursue more healthy alternatives:
"Start by cementing a vase into the ground. Now push a stone into the vase, which only just pushes through the neck of the vase, so it can’t be taken out of the vase again. The monkey will come along and put its hand in to grab the stone and try to pull it out. Of course the stone only just fitted in. Now with the monkey’s hand around the stone, it definitely won’t come out! The monkey cannot let go of the stone because it wants it. Even though the stone is of no value to the monkey, the monkey is not going to let go and remains stubborn. It is easy then to throw a net over the monkey, who threw its freedom away for a worthless stone. Think what this means to you. If you allow yourself to hold on to ‘worthless stones’ you may end up giving your freedom away. If you continue to allow stress to dominate your life because you are clinging to things that are not good for you, then you must accept that you will lose your happiness. Have the courage to let go of any ‘worthless stones’ in your life. Don’t cling on because of fear or familiarity or just plain stubbornness. Your freedom and happiness are worth more than any stone."
Kabat-Zinn relates exactly the same example in Full Catastrophe Living, p39:
"Letting Go

They say that in India there is a particularly clever way of catching monkeys. As the story goes, hunters will cut a hole in a coconut that is just big enough for a monkey to put its hand through. Then they will drill two smaller holes in the other end, pass a wire through, and secure the coconut to the base of a tree. Then they put a banana inside the coconut and hide. The monkey comes down, puts his hand in and takes hold of the banana. The hole is crafted so that the open hand can go in but the fist cannot get out. All the monkey has to do to be free is to let go of the banana. But it seems most monkeys don't let go."
There is one major area where the terminology does not overlap, however, and that is where the word 'autopilot' is used. Being mindful is considered the opposite of autopilot - being mindless, as Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School Ronald D. Siegel writes in his book The Mindfulness Solution (2010), p27:
"We spend most of our time lost in memories of the past and fantasies of the future. More often than not, we operate on “autopilot,” in which our mind occupies one space and our body another. It’s as though the mind has a mind of its own."
Professor Mark Williams supports this in Mindfulness as follows, p38:
"When you become more mindful, you bring your intentions and actions back into alignment, rather than being constantly sidetracked by your autopilot. You learn to stop wasting time pointlessly running through the same old habits of thinking and doing that have long since stopped serving any useful purpose. It also means that you are less likely to end up striving for too long towards goals that it might be wiser to let go of for a while. You become fully alive and aware again"
Dr Peters, however, defines 'autopilot' as a kind of useful program stored in one's 'computer brain' as a habit, skill, or ability:
"Autopilots are all the positive, constructive beliefs, behaviours and automatic functioning that help us to be successful and happy in life. They can be placed into the computer at any age. So Autopilots could include, for example: riding a bike; staying calm when something goes wrong; focusing on solutions rather than problems; tying a shoelace; being organised and disciplined as a routine; having a positive self-image."
Any negative habits or beliefs stored in one's computer brain are given another label: 'goblins' or 'gremlins':
"Goblins and Gremlins are more or less the opposite of Autopilots. They are unhelpful and destructive behaviours, beliefs or automatic programmes that are stored in the Computer. A Goblin is usually put into the Computer when you are very young. During the very early part of your childhood your Computer tends to hard-wire any information put into it. So Goblins are more or less hard-wired into the Computer and are very difficult to remove, so you need to learn to contain them."
So mindfulness considers autopilot a mindless state of mind, while The Chimp Paradox considers an autopilot a positive program one can install for skilful use, so this is a terminology issue, rather than a model issue. One must necessarily 'install' mindfulness practice as a positive habit at first, so mindfulness teachers follow the same approach of creating new habits to provide a new set of tools to combat stress. However, mindfulness considers all automatic thinking as a potential obstacle, and trusts the body's reflexive programs - for example, the breath - to be sufficient 'autopilots' once mindfulness has been accepted as a positive default state for a human (a kind of Chimp Paradox autopilot), and that dropping thinking allows our reflexive non-thought-based programs to help us through potential chellenges. Installing mindfulness as a positive behaviour tends to take many years for most people, so considering mindfulness practice as a Chimp Paradox 'autopilot' appears acceptable, even though mindfulness intends to eventually go beyond all autopilot behaviour, since being mindful - at peace - is considered the 'default mode' of a human being which exists beyond mental programming.

Pursuing more truth and realistic perspectives is another overlapping theme between The Chimp Paradox and mindfulness, which requires the practitioner to consider potential changes to their social values and lifestyle. Dr Peters explains:
"Life can be a bed of roses but that means there are lots of thorns. If you want to be happy picking roses then be mindful of the thorns. Watch out for things that you know will make you unhappy and actively avoid them whenever possible. Avoiding things that cause you to have unwanted feelings is a sensible way to stay happy. If you can’t avoid them, then have a plan on how you will deal with them; don’t be unprepared for the thorns. The Gremlin is ignoring reality and the Autopilot is being prepared to deal with reality."
Thich Nhat Hanh refers to the above thorns as toxins, in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), p32-33:
"When we drive through a city, our eyes see so many billboards, and these images enter our consciousness. When we pick up a magazine, the articles and advertisements are food for our consciousness. Advertisements that stimulate our craving for possessions, sex, and food can be toxic. If after reading the newspaper, hearing the news, or being in a conversation, we feel anxious or worn out, we know we have been in contact with toxins."
So The Chimp Paradox takes on an intriguingly moral stance at times, for example, regarding monogamy:
"Many people have Humans that are determined to be faithful and monogamous. However, their Chimps have a different agenda with a powerful sex drive and this frequently takes them in search of encounters. Recognising and dealing with seriously powerful drives such as this is a skill and one that takes effort."
So to conclude this small analysis, it seems The Chimp Paradox holds a lot of potential value for someone interested in practicing mindfulness - especially the simplified model of the human mind and the evolutionary psychology information. In the same way, mindfulness would appear to hold a lot of potential value for someone using The Chimp Paradox methodology in their lives - for recognising when they are in Chimp Mode more effectively, and reducing their mental chattering. Maybe in the future someone will create a skillful synthesis of the two approaches.


  1. Very helpful and to the point :-)

  2. I had one or two of these thoughts, but this is such a well written and researched piece, it puts it all out there. Thank you!