Meet Your Chimp

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One of the models that Karen O’Connor shared at her Performing On Your Mind workshop last month was a way of conceptualising different functions of the brain developed by sports psychologist Steve Peters. He divides the brain into three main areas, the frontal region, which operates the logical functions, the limbic region, seat of the emotions, and the parietal region, which acts as storage.

As Karen’s slide (which she has kindly let me share with you) shows, he then characterises these as your ‘human’ brain, your ‘chimp’ brain and your ‘computer’. This is clearly a simplified model of the brain, but its usefulness lies in its very simplicity - and it does at least bear a somewhat more direct relationship with the underlying complexities than the old stereotype of left and right hemispheres. (Which itself has some similarly valuable uses as a reflective tool - it’s just taken rather too literally rather too often.)

As a practical tool, a simple model is easy to grasp, and therefore to apply, immediately. It was clear both from the accounts of the students Karen had worked with who so generously shared their stories, and from the discussions within the group itself, that the model was intuitively meaningful as a way to describe and analyse people’s experience as performers, and indeed as human beings.

The model also helps people stand outside themselves and reflect more objectively on their own experience, rather than just remaining immersed in the experience from the inside. Personifying aspects of the self allows you to talk about them in the third person - as one person put it, ‘it’s not about me, it’s about the chimp’. There are resonances with my friends the Manager and the Communicator here, though not a one-to-one correspondence in model. But the idea of indentifying different parts of one’s internal life as different characters has the same rationale: to give performers a way to conceptualise and therefore have a more purposeful relationship with themselves.

The other great strength of the model is that, while it is simple, it is also rich. (I had similar thoughts about Sandy Marron’s model of the vocal mechanism.) The imagery is concrete, and brings with it a host of associations that make it both flexible and imaginatively satisfying to work with. Much performance-enhancement coaching is, after all, about managing the chimp.

(Or, as Karen also put it, avoiding impulsive behaviour. I find this equivalence interesting to reflect upon. One tends to think of emotions as being internal events, and behaviours as being external, but if you’ll accept thoughts as a form of behaviour - they are after all a significant part of the performer’s lived experience - then I think the equation works quite well. I think I may have to mull on this one longer, though.)

Note: it is not about controlling the chimp. We need our emotions with us, but we want them to be helping rather than distracting us when we start to perform. But we need to make friends with the chimp, we need to keep him happy. One of Karen’s past clients talked about ‘feeding the chimp’ before performing - an image that implied both meeting its needs, and giving it something to occupy it, to shut it up even, so it wouldn’t interfere with the performance. In fact, she did feed it literally, by eating a banana during her preparation for performance.

The chimp is a lovely image, because it captures so much that is holistically and realistically true about that part of our personalities. Chimps (as in actual chimps) are like us in so many ways that we can identify with the image strongly; indeed, human beings and chimps can have mutually rewarding and meaningful relationships. The image commands our empathy.

At the same time, chimps have limited truck with social niceties. They can be trained to an extent into cooperative behaviours, and they can be bullied into submissive behaviours, though at the cost of emotional damage. The thought of a chimp completely controlled, completely caged is a sad thought - there is an ebullience and joie de vive that we would miss. Much better to appeal to their intelligence, their sense of play, keep them safe and happy as a way to elicit their collaboration.

This is thus a good metaphor for our emotions. We don’t want to control them into submission, because that way we lose the pizzazz and the joy. We didn’t go into music to be joyless after all. But if we don’t have a productive relationship with them, they’ll screech and holler, and pull the wires out the back of our computer, leaving our human with no idea what they’re doing.

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