The human, the chimp and the computer

The human, the chimp and the computer

“It’s up to you today to start making healthy choices. Not choices that are just healthy for your body, but healthy for your mind”

Steve Maraboli


The human, the chimp and the computerThe human brain is an immensley complex organ, even the greatest minds alive today still do not know exactly how it works. 

This can make understanding why your thoughts lead you to feeling anxious and panicky very difficult to comprehend.

That said, it is possible to gain a basic understanding which everyone can grasp and this can be very helpful in re-training your thinking to feel less anxious and to stop panic attacks. 

One of the best books I have read for helping to simplify how your mind works is called The Chimp Paradox by Dr. Steve Peters, it’s a book I have included in my Useful Resources list.

I have spoken about a great technique mentioned in this book in an earlier post here.

Today I am going to be delving deeper in to the core concept which Dr Peters has developed in his mind management model and which is primarily focused on dealing with anxiety.

This concept is known as, ‘the human, the chimp and the computer’ and is based on how our brain operates, using these three distinct modes of thought processing.

These three psychological parts of the brain are known as the frontal lobe (human), limbic system (chimp) and parietal (computer), and it is how these work together (or in many cases, don’t) which determines your thoughts, emotions and feelings.

Let’s first look at each one in a little more detail.

The Human

The human part of the mind is located in the frontal lobe area of the brain and is responsible for your logical and rational thinking.

It enables you to work out puzzles, problems and to think through tricky decisions using facts and truths with a balanced judgement.

It wants to be happy, content, feel fulfilment and have success in life as well as to help others. 

This is the part of the brain which represents who you really are, what you believe is right or wrong and what you feel is important in your life.

Unfortunately it is often hijacked by the chimp which can then take control.

The Chimp

The chimp part of the mind is located in the limbic system and is the emotional part of your brain.

It thinks independently from the human mind and offers emotional based responses to situations which can be both constructive or destructive. 

It is not seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is just your inner chimp and although it can at times help you, it is often the main cause of anxiety and panic attacks.

The chimp and the human both interpret our experiences independently and then offer their advice, but the chimp is more powerful and operates at 4 times the speed of the human mind.

Unlike the human mind the chimp can often react irrationally and catastrophises the events it perceives. It is responsible for the thoughts of fear, paranoia, anger and despair. 

When it feels under threat it reacts by either preparing to fight, take flight or to freeze.

The Computer

The computer is spread throughout the entire brain and is the storage area for thoughts and behaviours which you input in to it. 

This information can be stored by either the human or the chimp and it then serves as an automatic reference point for each to refer to when it is called upon.

The computer operates at 5 times the speed of the chimp and 20 times the speed of the human.

The values and beliefs stored within the computer can be positive or negative and which variant often depends on who stored it, the human or the chimp.

How the 3 systems interact

As you interact in the world or think new thoughts both the human and the chimp receive and interpret this information.

It’s which part of the brain you use to do the interpreting that will decide how you are going to react and therefore ultimately feel about it.

The chimp using its feelings and first impressions will most likely lead to emotional thinking without the use of logic and reason.

If your inner chimp’s emotional thinking tends to be unrealistic and negative thinking then it is likely to lead to you feeling anxious.

You end up making assumptions, guessing and filling in the blanks with thoughts which are likely to be based around worry and fear. 

The human on the other hand will first look for the facts and truths to the situation or their thinking before making an assessment and decision on how to act or think further.

When you are in human mode you are more likely to think more positive and realistic thoughts and this in turn makes you feel better.

Depending on which version you used, will then affect what you store in the computer to be called upon in the future.

Do this enough times and the stored thought becomes habit which you recall automatically in the future without even thinking.

It is therefore very important to use the human to store as much interpretation as possible to input good habits and overwrite old bad habits. You can read more on the power of habits for anxiety here.

In essence anxiety and panic is where you have continually allowed the chimp to take control of your thoughts and emotions and store them as the truth. Eventually your computer becomes so full of them that you start to feel anxious every day.

What you have stored is not the truth, it’s the lies your emotional chimp has sold you.

This is a simplified overview of how the human, the chimp and the computer operate, to get the full detail you will need to read the book, which you can get here.

What does this all mean?

What Dr. Peters is trying to explain here is the reason behind why you often feel at war with your mind.

This helps you to understand why your anxiety can become all consuming and over powering and why your thoughts and fears of a panic attack are so strong that they can change your behaviour and limit what you do.

It is this battle between the human and the chimp along with the automatic programs which they store in the computer which leave you feeling the way you do.

Why is it in one instance you can go from feeling ok to suddenly feeling worried, panicked and overcome with anxiety?

It can be down to two things:

  1. The chimp reacts first to a new situation it has no stored memory of and quickly engages its irrational and catastrophic thoughts of worry and despair.
  2. The chimp looks inside the computer and sees a stored memory from a previous occasion and reacts with the same thoughts and feelings.

A panic or anxiety attack is either due to allowing your chimp to take control or by recalling your previous chimp’s thoughts and beliefs.

The more you do this the firmer it becomes ingrained into the computer.

Those who have daily anxiety and panic attacks have an over active chimp and they are using this part of their mind instead of the rational and logical mind of the human.

If you live your life based almost entirely on emotional thinking it is almost certain that you are going to feel more anxious than someone who is able to spot when their chimp is playing up and is able to use their human to reason with it and eventually disprove its lies.

What can you do about it?

Dr. Peters calls it ‘managing your chimp’, the reason for this is because you cannot beat it with brute force, it is too strong and too quick in its responses to do so.

This is why I often say you must not try and fight anxiety and panic, to forcefully try and push it out of your mind.

You must understand and accept that this is how the brain works.

The chimp is there for your survival, to help you to fight, take flight or freeze in an attempt to save your life when it is really needed.

The problem is you are now using these mechanisms for all areas of your life and allowing the chimp to run it.

The chimp will always be there, you cannot get rid of it, but you can use your human mind to make sure it works for you and not against you.

The first step is to recognise when the chimp is taking control. It is easy to explain how to spot this, but not so easy to do when you are in the middle of severe anxiety or a panic attack.

As Dr Peters puts it:

“The golden rule is that whenever you have feelings, thoughts or behaviours, that you do not want or welcome, then you are being hijacked by your chimp”

If you do not like they way you are thinking, feeling and behaving then you must spot this and then start to manage your chimp.

To manage your chimp you must do the following:

  • Allow the chimp to have its thoughts and feelings, let them sit with you and do not fight it. Recognise that it is the chimp speaking because the thoughts and feelings are unwanted, but that you understand you must let them be.
  • Once the chimp has had its say it is now time to use your human mind to rationally and logically talk back to it. To dispel its lies and show it that its irrational and emotional responses are not the truth. I have written about a great technique to do this here.

You can also distract the chimp or give it what it wants, which is usually a quick reward. These rewards are often associated with dopamine fixes (food, sex, money etc) and in the long run can cause more problems than they solve.

I strongly advise against the distraction or reward techniques, yes it may help give an instant relief of your anxiety and panic, but in the long run it is unlikely to stop it occurring again.

If however, you are able to continually allow the chimp to vent its emotions, not fight them, and then use your human mind to untwist it’s thinking you will begin to store new better programs in the computer.

Eventually these programs replace the old negative ones and when the chimp looks to the computer for reference it finds nothing negative to react to.

You have managed the chimp, it remains silent and you remain calm and feeling good.

Why is this important for anxiety and panic sufferers?

Knowledge really is power when it comes to recovering from anxiety and panic.

As we grow up most people are taught some basic first aid and how to look after someone who is sick or unwell. Yet we are never taught how to look after the mind, we treat it like it is something which should just work fine on its own.

This is why so many people who develop anxiety and panic feel so frightened and alone. They have no idea what it is, how it works and what to do about it.  

It sickens me that simple basic information which could help people understand their thoughts and feelings and could be understood by anyone is not part of our society and culture. That it is looked down upon as a ‘mental issue’ and something to be ridiculed. 

Can you imagine ridiculing a cancer sufferer or someone with AIDS?

No, it’s just not done.

Instead those with anxiety and panic have to seek out this information and learn to understand it on their own.

In most cases this is not done until after the anxiety and panic has caused serious problems in their life.

So understand what you have read here, I cannot stress enough how important this knowledge is in helping you to recover. 

However, just like knowing how to do CPR is not enough, it only works if you are able to do it. Treat your anxiety like any physical health issue, it requires knowledge, time and a determination to recover.

Except for in this case your are the doctor, the surgeon, the bandage and the physiotherapy all rolled into one.

It’s your mind, no one else can get in there but you.


Hugo Rock


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