Are we still chimps? – the origins of mental health (Part 1)

Where do mental health issues come from? Are they purely chemical? Are they caused by evolution? Or are they a matter of sheer willpower and resilience that “weak” people don’t have?


In The Chimp Paradox, consultant psychiatrist Steve Peters moves across all three options with his proposed model of mind. This is an unusual departure from a fixed view of “the chemical brain” that has dominated psychiatric thinking and practice. Peters has worked with sports professionals such as Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Ronnie O’ Sullivan, amongst others. He continues the tradition started by Timothy Gallway (The Inner Game) to deal with the fear and sabotage of success in high performance individuals. The model applies to us all.


Peters draws three areas of brain functioning that he simplifies as the computer, the human, and the chimp. The chimp is ‘an emotional machine that thinks independently from us.’ It appears irrational in fear and aggression when it feels threatened or in danger. It produces flight, fight or freeze reactions that takes over and floods all our thinking. We can’t hear what others are saying and can’t see the actual data of what is happening in an event. The chimp is a biological system and overwhelms all rational thinking, listening and judgment when triggered. It wants to protect its life. It fears death.


The relationship partner that screams and shouts unpredictably, twists everything you say or always blames you and argues why they are always right. The exhausted parent at their wits end who either shut down or shout at the child. The bullying employer or manager at work who gets things done by intimidation, manipulation, undermining verbal abuse. A few examples of the chimp brain in action.


Rather than medicine and drugs, Peters uses the chemistry of neuroscience originally pioneered by Allan Schore. This research scans images of neural networks in our brain when we are under stress, pressure or isolated without relational contact and support. Because these neural networks are biological and chemically wired, they appear to have a dominance which nothing can shake. Once triggered, nothing can stop them.


Does the neural network of the chimp brain explain the origins of our mental health issues? Look out for our Part 2 next week.


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

Previn Karian

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