Skip to main content

We know these days that our brain has an emotional system that is very fast and a neo cortex that is rational and makes us human. Many scientists have been doing research to explore the intricacies of our brain. I like Daniel Siegel best (his book Mindsight is marvelous) and last week The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters was brought to my attention. He is a bit in a rush explaining his model in the TED Talk: Optimizing the performance of the human mind but his message is clear and has been helpful for many elite sporters. He calls our emotional brain the Inner Chimp. The Chimp is fast and external triggers lead to 3 responses: fight, flight or freeze. Our Neocortex (the newer brain) can overrule the Chimp but that is not always easy. Please watch the video and read Daniel Siegel if you’re less familiar with the working of your brain.

Now something different: preparing with elite sailors for a presentation for the top 80 of TNT last week I came to a different insight. If you’re sailing ‘in the zone’, there is something else taking over from you. You don’t decide rationally what to do, you just do. It feels as if the conscious decision process from the Neocortex is not involved. You can’t rationalize afterwards why you did what you did but you won. How’s the Chimp involved? The Chimp is way more sensitive than our rational mind (Ap Dijksterhuis advocates it notices 1.2 million bits/second to 60 bits/second) and is extremely receptive. But the difficulty is that it can be very reactive too. When it feels threatened it responds with fight, flight or freeze and it brings your body in a different state that doesn’t receive many external stimuli. You are in state of panic and act accordingly. That doesn’t make you win races.

The trick for sailors is to stay in that receptive Chimp mind without getting scared, judgmental about ones (bad) performance or being physically exhausted. For leaders and consultants it’s not much different. In times of adversity they need to stay open to what’s happening around them. Meditation helps here: you become more aware of yourself and are better able to notice your feelings. As Siegel suggests: ‘Name it to tame it.’ When you can say to yourself you’re afraid, the fear doesn’t take over from you. He found that: ‘How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.’ So through practices we can change our brain in a way that it becomes more receptive. The next question for me is how to become so self-confident that I have the courage to act (ethically) while I’m in a not-consciously-knowing-state.

I want to explore this a little further before I come to conclusions. Stay tuned 🙂

Leave a Reply