Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Chimp Theory

Below is an old post which I published back in April when I was first learning about the Chimp Theory during filming for the TV show. I removed it from my blog because the TV company got a bit paranoid and thought Steve Peters wouldn't be happy but he later said that he didn't mind at all! Anyway, Ex Yo Yo Dieter asked about the Chimp Theory so I thought I would re-post it for information. I learned a lot more besides but this is the clearest explanation:

So I don't sound like an insane woman rambling on about chimps, I had better explain the part of Dr Steve Peters' theory that he outlined to us last night. He said there was still more to come but he has to do it in chunks as it is quite technical.

The brain is divided into 6 sections. He told us to think of them as separate organs almost, like the liver and the kidneys. They work toegther but they develop differently and do different tasks. We're apparently only interested in the 3 of them that deal mainly with our emotions and behaviour.

The 3 are the frontal lobe which is "me", my logical, sentient, thinking personality. Then there is the computer which we didn't talk about last night and then there is "the chimp". He described her as being there already when "I" moved in. The chimp is the primitive, emotional, animal part of my brain which is NOT "me". And she is very strong. He said 5X stronger than me!

He said that me and my chimp do not always agree but if I try and take her on using strength (willpower) alone, I WILL LOSE. That was the first bell ringing. Willpower alone won't work. She (my chimp) might let me away with it once in a while but she remains in control.

This dual personality thing explains a lot for me. I often say in this blog how I conduct internal bargaining sessions. About what to eat or trying to persuade myself to go for a run, doing a short one and then carrying on etc. I've been talking to my chimp all along and I never knew!!

Anyway, what motivates her? This is the kicker.

Steve explained that for female chimps there are 3 primary motivating elements (there are many others besides but these are the main ones):

The first and most important is FOOD! Our chimps and therefore we are programmed internally from birth to be motivated by food. Men are not. (Their chimps' motivations are power, ego and sex - who knew!!). He explained that this is due to the female role in the wild of having lots of babies and the need to keep up our body fat to be able to bear them and them feed them.

The second (and this really knocked me down) is INSECURITY. He explained that it is necessary for a female chimp, due to her relative size to the males, not to take them on physically and due to her role in child care to be very cautious and fearful. Hence, constant insecurity is hardwired into our brains. A small rustle in the bushes and she's off. A male chimp, on the other hand will be more confident of taking on a threat so doesn't need the same level of insecurity.
Explains a lot eh?

The third motivation is the MATERNAL instinct. While this doesn't apply to me as I don't have kids, the women in the group with children were nodding. This is why women put themselves last in the pecking order and prioritise their family at the expense of their health and wellbeing. This might seem altruistic but it leads to sad, unfulfilled mothers which is, logically, not the best outcome for the children.

So, what does our chimp do about these 3 motivations?? Well, she fights, flees or freezes. Steve said that flight and freezing are by far the most common response with fighting being the last resort for a female.

This reveals it self in many ways. For example, one of my most detested personality traits is my procrastination. Steve explained that this was my insecure chimp, fearful of not being able to do the task, compelling me to either flee from it or freeze into inertia. Which is why, when I actually do start it, usually by bargaining with the chimp that we'll just do 15 minutes or something, we discover that we can do it and we actually enjoy it!

Regarding the food issue. I don't want to eat; I know I'm not hungry and can wait 'til lunch or I only need a salad. My chimp does want to eat. It's the jungle to her and she's not sure when her next meal is coming from. In a head-on battle, she will win. Maybe not always but often enough for me to know that she is in control.

So how to deal with her? Steve said, treat her like a child or a dog that you need to cajole, outwit and, ultimately, train. If a toddler was screaming for food 30 minutes before supper you would distract it. Try that.

My chimp is very social and concerned about her standing the group. You can shame her into not eating. Putting photos of your fat self on the fridge in a public place. Try telling people that you're not going to eat at a buffet, say. Your chimp is proud and will help you to not give in. This explains why I found abstinence when I was doing Lighter Life easy. I had told everyone at work, at home and in the pub that I was only eating packs and drinking water. My chimp wouldn't lose face by failing. Now of course, she is sneaky and tries to push the boundaries all the time. Cow!

We didn't have long on these techniques as the theory took a long time but it's all in the preparation. He wants us to identify our chimp this week and start to get to know her. Why don't you join in?

I felt a huge wave of relief as the theory unfolded. And excitement. Finally I could understand why I don't seem to be able to get past this permanently. Even Steve was slightly teary himself as he said how unjust it is that women beat themselves up for something which is not "them". It is their chimps. Once you get to know your chimp you can learn to control her and take over the running of your body and brain from her but until then, why feel bad about being a perfectly running female machine??

Also, so many of the diets, regimes and techniques which I've learned in the past are not wrong. They're just not the whole picture. It all hangs together now for me so I can see how CBT/NLP etc have their place (apparently we'll get to that in the computer part of the brain). I can see how the not beating yourself up helps. The take a small step, idea; the distraction techniques. Now I know WHY though and that, for me, makes all the difference.


Ex Yo-Yo Dieter Debbie said...

Thank you for clarifying the chimp issue! (To be honest, I thought you were referring to struggles with food/exercise as being the "monkey" on your back!)

It all makes perfect sense. Sometimes I've said the overwhelming urge to eat for no reason comes from my "reptilian brain", since it feels so primitive. The chimp analogy makes more sense, though. The insecurity reference really hit home.

Thanks again...I'll be thinking of my inner chimp now, too. I keep having little flashes in my mind of her puckering up her lips, half-affectionate and half-mocking. Such is the nature of that inner beast! haha

Milly said...

Hi Lesley, thanks for posting that info. It does make more sense now. For me the maternal instinct part really hit because I am bottom in my own priorities most of the time, including my health. I have also struggled for years with an irrational fear of hunger, so much so that I would overeat if I thought food wasn't going to be available for a while, get it while I can mentality, or I would feel anxious, which in this day & age when food is readily available seems foolish. I realise now that it is my chimps fear, not mine.
I also realise that is my chimp that encourages me to eat when I am stressed, perhaps she can't differentiate between stress that is just stress & stress that is life threatening. I don't know but I'm working through lots in my mind & being much kinder to myself. Thanks again for a great blog Lesley

Isabelle said...

Very interesting. And now you have a wreath to put on your chimp's head! If you'd like to claim your prize, drop me a comment with your email address (I'll delete it asap) and then you can tell me by email where you'd like it sent.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this (beautifully written!) post. I found it whilst googling Steve Peters and it was really instructive and helpful. I understand Peters has a new book coming out in 2010 which explains his chimp theory in depth, but have so far been unable to find any more details online. Can anyone provide any more info? Thank you in advance.

Simon Turton said...

Only just started reading the Chimp Paradox but already seeing 'me' in a new light. Even doing this typing is really the chimp at play because I know I should not be spending my working day on non-core activities. I saw him do a presentation in our village the other week and he was FANTASTIC: amusing, challenging and at times contraversial. His best comment was: "I'm not politically correct, I am just correct!".

Apart from so many other things it seems to me that advertisers are targeting the chimp because most adverts are about having fun or relaxing or other emotional messages that bypass the Human and go straight to the Chimp. Unless we understand how we work we're never going to move forward and side-step the 1000s of messages that head our way each day.

I think the Chimp Paradox could easily be called The Human: A User Guide, because in life we get precious little information about how our brains work. We get more information for the latest iPad than we ever get for us.

Hope the slimming is going well.