Are we still chimps – the origins of mental health (Part 2)

In our previous post, we outlined Dr Steve Peters’ model of mind based on what he calls the chimp brain, the computer and the human. We discussed his concern about the chimp brain as a biological origin that can malfunction and take over our brain wiring.


Peters goes on to map the other two functions which can be activated to stop the destructive and irrational dominance of the chimp brain. Both of them are also wired into the neural networking of the brain.


We have a rational function that can process raw data in real time. This is a neutral, computer recording of what happens in an event. It calculates and tries to predict people’s behaviour or what will happen in a situation. It remains impartial and observes.


Our rational brain will accurately record what is happening in a conversation or an event and refuse to act out in either anger or fear. It calculates the next necessary decision or move that will bring the best outcome in our interest. For example, to override the feeling of anger or fear, the rational brain may check with the other person whether they have heard or understood the problem correctly. It may reset its feelings of failure or losing by checking the facts of what can still be achieved, putting things in perspective and proportion. It addresses your needs in the present.


We also have a human function which contains our self-knowledge, an inner wisdom about our lives. Our human function relates us to one another in a recognition of our kinship as a species of animal – we recognise other human beings to be the same as us.


The human brain stops us from acting in self-interest alone, and reminds the rational and chimp brain that we do have to get along with others in our animal species. Relationships with others is also the guide to our future success. The bullying Director or manager may decide to undertake courses in emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills. The partner or the parent may try to research or read about improving their capacity to communicate, taking responsibility for themselves, rather than blaming or persecuting the other. The sports professional may include a sports psychologist in their team of specialist trainers or people they consult. The human brain creates and directs the future.


Although the rational and human functions run on neural networks in the brain, they are newer developments in evolution compared to the original chimp brain. These two functions have evolved over time and in society.


Mental health issues occur when any one of these functions dominate and try to exclude or annihilate the others. We cannot just blame the chimp brain. We all live in a fragile balance between the three. The breakdown of this balance leads to insanity and being aggressively out of control. Any one of these functions can take over the others.


When that happens, we become dangerously and overwhelmingly irrational. For example, our chimp brain can persuade us that we are being rational and human when we shout and distort facts in our anger. Our rational brain can persuade us that we don’t need others and must always act in self-interest, even if that means backstabbing, lying or trampling on others for our gain. Our human brain can fixate on pleasing other people, hoping that will make our future safe and secure through winning the approval of others. But to please others, we lose our own minds.


The takeover of any one function is called cognitive dissonance, denial or disavowal. This one-sidedness creates a collapse into obsession, manias, addictions, anxieties, depression and other mental health symptoms. At that tipping point, any power of the will is swept away and utterly ineffective – no matter how much we scream at ourselves or others to ‘get better’. And there is a lot of screaming in society today.


Events in human history do not inspire great confidence in the evolution of the rational and human brain to solve our problems in time. What we need is more mental health awareness on the management and development of these three functions – if civilisation is to avoid collapsing into insanity itself.


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In These Times - Speaking for the Mind - Help with Mental Health

Previn Karian

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