Are you turning monkey? How our brain works and why we make bad choices

I was once having a relaxing walk in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. My thoughts were flowing and I was simply observing them without paying too much attention, enjoying nature and not caring about anything else.

All of a sudden I hear my phone ringing and, with a smooth move worthy of Clint Eastwood in a Western movie, I extracted the phone from my pocket and checked the message.

Obviously nothing important, only my Mom reminding me to use the new product she bought for the washing machine.

Quite disappointed by the interruption, I found myself wondering how my brain got incredibly excited by the idea of getting some good news… but also a bit anxious about some possible bad news.

I stopped for a second and looked around me, noticing how tempted I was to start checking my Facebook notifications, Twitter notifications, and last but not least, my agenda.

I was petrified. All my calm and mindfulness destroyed by a single text!

Identifying and recovering

Upon getting home I was quite disturbed by the idea of being addicted to my phone and, since I felt quite nervous, I ended up buying ice cream at the shop outside my flat and started eating it already in the elevator in a total craving rush.

What started with the intention of being a mindful relaxing walk ended up in a fattening bath of shame and guilt.

I was truly disappointed with myself but, remembering the Buddhist teachings, I simply set on a chair and reflected on why this chain of events had taken place in my head.

In no time I re-opened a book I read long time ago called “The Willpower Instinct” and after a few pages the answer to my questions came to me unexpected like rain in August.

The human brain is divided into three layers. For the sake of simplicity we are going to call them the Snake brain (reptilian), Monkey brain (mammalian) and Genius brain (prefrontal cortex).

The Snake:

This part of the brain guides our primal instincts, it does it by triggering our desires for food, shelter and reproduction. It makes us run if we sense a threat and leads us to look for security and sexual activity.

All good stuff right?

Let’s take a closer look on how life was thousands of years ago when the skies were blue, the rivers were crystal clear… and a Fred Flinstone-like caveman was strolling in the forest looking for some tasty fruits and few juicy rabbits to take back to his tribe.

The sun is close to setting and Fred hasn’t been lucky today. No rabbits, no roots but, all of sudden, there it is: a tree of tropical fruits.

They’re shining of a yellow and orange so bright that the sight itself is stimulating Fred’s salivation system.

The Snake calls Fred like the sirens called Ulysses and he gets all excited about gathering this tasty treasure. He comes closer and closer, when a loud noise from behind catches Fred’s attention.

Tap tap tap tap…a massive tiger!

It’s running towards him, showing his claws and pre-tasting Fred’s liver and various organs.

Fight or flight

The Snake calls Fred and, even though the fruits were so close, the impulse of running away and hiding somewhere is much bigger than the craving.

He runs, runs, runs and well… in my mind I like to think that Fred was a lucky one and somehow managed to escape the predator.

But most likely the tiger is using Fred’s radius bone to clean his teeth…poor soul.

Even though Fred didn’t make it, the Snake did a great job putting the escape plan first and the food second. If we were cavemen this little part of our brain would turn out quite useful, since all we needed was to hunt, to hide and to make lots of baby Freds.

Society today

Pity we live in a society where there is an over abundance of food, shelter is generally provided and sex…well you know that. Progress happened too fast for our brain to catch up and what was useful thousands of years ago turns out to be dangerous and counter-productive today.

This is called “Caveman Syndrome”

Think about it, what was your reaction the last time you red about the next tube strike? Heart pounding, eyes dilated, cold sweat, adrenaline pumping.

Just as the poor Fred felt when he saw the tiger. Your brain just can’t see the difference between shocking news and the sight of a predator.

The same is also true for a food buffet where (since you have paid already) the Snake wants you to get as much food as you can. Or pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex stimulating sexual desires while you’re standing in a tube station packed with people.

The Snake has no logical capability or concept of time

It is programmed to seek out situations that seem good for immediate survival without taking into consideration the long term effect of your actions.

In my example of the walk in the park, the gorging of ice cream without really thinking of diet or health is a perfect example of the Snake in action.

The Snake only believes what he can see right now, therefore the idea of feeling bloated in one hour, guilty in two and fatter the next day is not contemplated at all…

“It looks good: let’s eat it,” says the Snake. 

I coined the name Snake because it seemed really appropriate to this part of our brain, since it will tempt us with desires that are totally non rational nowadays…just like the Snake tempted Eve.

The Monkey:

Also called Limbic System; the center of emotions. Differentiating from other mammals that rely more on the Snake brain, monkeys have something that makes them special don’t they?

They are playful, they can get angry, aggressive, and we all love when they do that cute sad face when you put them back inside their cage… “Aww poor monkey.”

The Monkey brain helps you see the world as a set of problems and games to play with and explore while you ride the emotional highs and lows that they make you feel.

The Monkey brain loves to experience peak emotional states like anger, happiness, sadness, frustration, boredom, excitement and so on.

A monkey has to keep himself entertained in the end. This part of the brain is different from the Snake.

The Monkey has the concept of time but it also believes that the only resources he can access are the ones he has been taught previously.

It is not wired to discover and create, it rather keeps you entertained with activities that you can repeat while in auto pilot.

Clever monkey?

If you tell this part of the brain any of the following:

-“I have a slow metabolism.”

-“I am not fit for this sport.”

-“I don’t like vegetables.”

-“I am a failure.”

-“I have a sweet tooth.”

The Monkey will believe you and act accordingly. Clever monkey?

Not really. “Why try something new when this is so much fun?” said the Monkey.

Are you turning monkey?

If you ever have been addicted to sushi, been nominated the best drama queen at school, been spending more hours at the pub than at home or spent days playing World of Warcraft, that was you going monkey. And believe me I’ve done them all!

But let’s go back to my walk in the park.

Now you know that once I have unlocked the screen of my phone with my fancy fingerprint, the Monkey took over. And I don’t know about you but when I’m in monkey mode I tend to have a particular taste for cookies and ice cream.

The Monkey and the Snake make a great team to keep you in shape don’t they?

The Genius:

Also called the Pre-Frontal Cortex. Is the center of logic, reasoning, creativity and higher consciousness.

That’s where the magic happens.

I know you are thinking of a gold coated lamp with a blue body-builder like ominus with no legs and a funny beard hiding inside it, but shut your Monkey brain for a second and keep reading because in order to get fit you will need to tap into this Genius quite a lot.

The Genius is indeed the ultimate source of power and your best friend when it comes to making difficult choices or finding creative solutions.

He is always there waiting for you to rub his lamp, but unfortunately he doesn’t go along with Snake and Monkey…he’s a bit of a loner you know.

Going Genius

The Genius knows that to achieve your goals you need a solid plan and the willpower to follow through. He will help you with creative solutions to simplify your life and he will give you the willpower to resist Monkey and Snake for as long as he can.

If you ever felt true inspiration, felt like you could achieve all your goals and gather the required mental strength to overcome any challenge, or simply felt in peace with yourself and connected to something bigger than you – that was you going Genius.

“Ask and you shall have…but no more than three wishes” said the Genius.

My walk in the park was indeed planned to awaken the Genius, since he only comes out in a relaxed state of mind while the Monkey is asleep.

I should just have turned the phone off and enjoyed the chat with this funny guy…don’t make the same mistake!

To understand how these three characters are interacting with each other and affecting your daily life we need to take a closer look to their dynamics.

The three parts are structured in a way that the lower ones will shut down the higher ones.

If the Snake is highly stimulated it will take over Monkey and Genius.

In a life or death situation, like avoiding a bull gone berserk, I would put blind trust in my Snake and hide in a safe spot away from the enraged beast.

And so would you…unless your Monkey is crazy enough to jump in the middle of a street in Pamplona during the festival.

Once you are in a safe place and the Snake is chilling down, the Monkey will make his move and you would be drawn to watch the cruel but at the same time entertaining scene that is happening in front of your eyes.

The Monkey loves to see scary and exciting things

You are magnetically charmed by that mass of horns, dust and blood. Provided that the Monkey stays stimulated it will stay in control of you until he gets bored.

The Genius really does not go along with the Monkey

Since he’s a bit of a precious queen, he won’t come up as long as the monkey is juggling with your mind.

When later on in the day you will be laying down in bed staring the ceiling and reflecting on the experience, you might have a chance to rub the lamp and have a chat with the Genius. He will explore past memories and beliefs you accumulated in creating your new personal opinion.

The Genius only visits you when you are in a state of calm, abundance and wholeness with the world.

That is why we believe geniuses are a rare thing nowadays, but really are not.

Simply there are few people that take the time to master the skill required to rub the lamp. On the opposite side I’m sure you know plenty of monkeys!

A monkey-friendly society

Now that you know how the monkey likes to keep himself stimulated you can quickly realize how marketing experts have structured our environment to keep us jumping from one stimulus to another, just like happy monkeys.

Colorful bars, pictures of hot looking men and women on a sunny beach, your favourite bottle of whiskey and James Dean making cigarette smoking look cool.

The Monkey is continuously stimulated and makes us experience a series of highs and lows worth of an Olympic jump gold medallist.

We are simply doomed to be ‘monkeyfied’!

Exercise: who is doing what?

If after reading this article you found yourself not wanting to act like a monkey any more and rushed to the toilet grooming your beard and shaving your body to look less primal, you might want to consider trying a simple little exercise that will have an immense impact on your life and help you become more of a genius.

It goes like this:

Redirect yourself

Come back to your life, go for a walk or simply keep doing what you were doing before.

Switch on your attention and explore your emotions.

What do you feel?

Emotions are Monkey driven and keep the monkey jumping around looking for something shiny or something to snack on to suppress the emotion.

Do you feel anxious, angry, sad, frustrated, disappointed? Or do you feel happy, excited or simply bored?

Explore your emotions

Is it rational to feel that way?

Or are you simply going with the flaw as you always do without questioning why you feel a certain way?

Where do you feel the emotion in your body? Literally scan your body from head to toe to find where you feel something different. Do you feel your stomach? Do you feel your head or your neck? Do you feel your lower back?

Become familiar with the body part upon noticing a certain emotion.

Explore your intentions

What do you feel like doing? Do you feel like checking email and social networks? Do you feel like snacking on sweets or crisps? Do you feel like wine or cigarettes?

Do you feel like texting someone hoping that he or she might feel the same as you? Do you feel like going to sleep?


Every emotion triggers a certain behavior that is most likely non-rational. Every Monkey has a different way to entertain himself with emotions.

Some monkeys like to eat, others like to smoke and drink alone.

There are social pub monkeys and geeky video game addicted monkeys. Last but not least the violent monkeys and the ones that lock themselves into a room and start crying…

These simple exercises, if done consistently will have a tremendous positive impact in your life. In fact I didn’t invent it myself but it is one of the most taught Buddhist teachings.

So remember:

Emotions, Sensations, Intentions. 

Is what I want to do now rational? And will it have a beneficial effect on my life? You will be amazed by the incredible amount of stupid choices your Monkey makes for you every day.