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It's all the fault of my Inner Chimp


I sat in on a talk by a motivational speaker this week.  It was a large teacher event at which I was due to give some maths workshops, but for the first session of the day everyone attended the opening address which was from a sports coach.  She was there to explain why we all need to learn to manage our "Inner Chimp" so that we can improve our performance. 

'Inner Chimp?', I hear you ask. The coach, who has worked with lots of Olympic athletes, told us that our brains have two parts, the outer part which is a result of more recent evolution and has given us our analytical intelligence, and an inner core, the ancient 'Chimp' brain which is responsible for our more instinctive, survival side (the bit that encourages you to do things like fight, flee and eat as much as you can).

It all sounded sort-of plausible.  Well if this stuff works for Chris Hoy, you can't ignore it, can you? I was a bit concerned, however, that there were no videos of chimpanzees to support her assertions of how male and female chimps behave in ways similar to humans when our inner chimp brain is in control. 

Instead, as the narrative unfolded we were given a variety of other amusing and diverting little anecdotes and video clips about human and animal behaviour.  To demonstrate how we sometimes inadvertently create our own problems the coach showed a short video in which an old woman with a dog on a lead threw a stick only to then be yanked comically off screen as the dog bounded after it (that clip would definitely have won £25 on 'You've Been Framed').  To show how men and women think differently we were shown a short film called It's Not About The Nail.  I found the nail video extremely funny - you might too if you have a long term partner.  In fact I found the whole presentation very engaging.  But I am struggling now to remember how either the old woman with the dog or the film about the nail are connected to my Inner Chimp.  And even if I do have an Inner Chimp, I am still unclear as to what I am supposed to do with it. Should I be giving it a banana?

All this reminded me of some previous motivational neuroscience that was all the rage in the 1980s. Back then, the fad was about how the brain has two parts that operate in complementary ways.  This time though it wasn't the inner and outer brain, but the left and the right. As I recall, the claims were that the Left brain is responsible for language, logic and maths, while the Right brain deals with emotions, impulses and the 'creative' side of the brain.  The way to release creativity was by suppressing our left brain and releasing our right brain because the right brain can think up hundreds of uses for a paperclip while the left can only see it as something to hold sheets of paper together.  But this simplistic approach to how the brain works has been widely debunked by scientists and even artists such as Betty Edwards (author of the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) who point out that creative acts like drawing make use of all parts of your brain. 

And don't get me started on 'Neuro-Linguistic Programming' (or NLP as it's usually known).

But the fact that the science is being abused doesn't seem to matter to most of the audiences. Motivational speakers earn huge fees because they make audiences feel good about themselves, and send them off with a positive 'can do' attitude (however transitory that might be).

The Inner Chimp model taps into another feel-good secret too.  It allows you to blame somebody else for your failings.  So when we watched Roger Federer smashing a racket after losing a rally, we were told that it wasn't actually Roger Federer who smashed his racket, it was somebody else - his Inner Chimp. So that's alright then.

It seems to me that the biggest secret to getting motivated by these speakers is to believe, however flimsy the supporting evidence is.  Like a placebo drug, if you believe it's working then it really does work.

Alas, when it comes to sessions like these, too often I find the negative force of scepticism is too strong. Or who knows, maybe the reason I don't leave all motivated is the fault of my Inner Chimp.