Psychology of Survival: The Monkey and the Brain

Writing on the subject of the psychology of survival has been on my ‘things-I-want-to-do’ for way too long. The human mind boggles me, especially when it limits get to the test. Both end of the spectrum fascinate me: People who have successfully endured things you wouldn’t wish upon your darkest enemy, all the way to how people play tricks on their own mind and not being able to even predict their own behaviour.

Why do we often react in a way that does not serve us? Which forces are at play, and how can we take control to ensure our best chance at survival?

What the heck does those psychology have to do with survival or outdoor skills?

Thinking Fast and Slow: Know the Unknown

There are a lot of ways to make more sense of the brain, all models and methods to understand our behaviour patterns better. One of these models had been put to paper in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, as well as The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. Before you catch your mind wandering, thinking what the heck does this have to do with survival? Please let me explain..

  1. This particular model makes clear we have two basic systems running our behaviour.
  2. And it makes clear that when under pressure,  our monkey brain wants to take over.

In a nutshell, our brains have two systems: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional – also referred as the monkey brain, the limbic part of the brain. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical – fact based, driven by our frontal lobes. When confronted, especially when emotions are involved, our monkey brain wants to take over. This system is designed to ensure your survival – for example yelling when somebody is trying to steal your food – but sometimes failing horribly when trying to do so.

Not always the monkey brain is so obviously at work. We use rules of thumb (heuristics and biases) and our auto pilot (learned patterns) to make the cost of decision making lower (saving energy). Biases such as “pervasive optimistic bias”, can be a real threat to survival.  Your brain focuses on the things it knows, such as the danger of freezing in winter (Known knowns), rarely considers the things you know but have no information on (Known unknowns), and disregards the things you do not know about (Unknown unknowns). You might find yourself focusing so much on not freezing to death (building fires, carrying blankets), that you forget to drink enough, because the ‘known knowns’ are using all of your brain’s energy.

Often our strengths reflect our known knowns, and our weakness our known unknowns and unknown knowns.

How to deal with your monkey mind?

  1. Learn about your environments and its dangers before hand, and learn to plan accordingly.
  2. Assess your plans carefully, and let other take a look at them as well.
  3. Know where your strengths and weakness are – often times our strengths reflect our known knowns, and our weakness our known unknown and unknown unknowns.

I grew up in a family of nurses and hospital workers. Knowing how to give first aid and even knowing how to suture, were as normal to me as knowing how to ride a bike. My strengths and known knowns, therefore, have most definitely become dealing with minor (and larger) medical issues. A great skill to have, but leaning on this given too much, has clouded my mind: Medical issues are not the only thing that need to be dealt with when outdoors. To give one example, I know the cold can be a real issue, especially in the winter months. I felt this was something that would overcome one, rather than something I could do much about (known unknowns). I figured if my first aid kit was well equipped and my first aid skill were too, I could ensure my survival. Spending not much thoughts on the things I thought I couldn’t control.

We are all stubborn 

Seeing cold as something I did not have control over, was a learned pattern, that obviously, did not serve me well. Just as heuristics, learned patterns (or Goblins as Steve Peters calls them), can do more harm than good. So it is good to know where your own goblins are hiding. Learned patterns can be as easy as your way back home from work, or as complicated as behaviour that was enforced by your parents without you even knowing it. Let’s have a look again at my (former) horrible relationship with cold.

When I was younger I had been hyperthermic a couple of times in seemingly harmless situations. This led me to the believe that being hyperthermic (and cold) was something I could not control. Since it happened more than once, and my parents did not really show any kind of response, it reinforced my believe that the cold was just something that was part of certain situations, and not much could be done about it. (It was when I was older that I learned, that this non-response by my parents, was just their own learned patterns to keep calm as health professionals).

Although not always immediately visible, we all carry certain learned patterns with us. Another example is getting candy as a kid when your parents were fighting, and now as an adult you need sweets to comfort you after emotional distress. These learned patterns let us decide and react more quickly than assessing the situation as if you saw it for the first time. In a lot of situations this is a very nifty brain trick, but it is definitely one you need to be aware of too (just as the heuristics).

Arousal can occupy so much of our brain’s energy, that our dominant behaviour takes over.

Especially in stressful situation, we fall back on learned patterns. You know that person who stopped smoking years ago, but recently started again because he is going through some tough times? This effect also comes into play in more acute situations, especially well studied in sportsman who needed to preform when arousing is at its highest. The verdict? When aroused we are able to execute tasks that we know well and have done often, almost always perfectly. Newer and more complex tasks, however, seem to have a higher rate of errors. Arousal can occupy so much of our brain’s energy, that our dominant behaviour (most enforced learned patterns, the monkey mind) takes over.

So now you find yourself lost in the woods, what do these principles mean for you? When aroused chances are your most enforced learned patterns take over. Let’s have another look at my, not so helpful, behaviour. One of my most enforced patterns is to keep on going – there is a way and I will find it. This behaviour can serve you very well, but also can make the situation worse.  When lost, running around like crazy, or even stubbornly continue your way, is not going to help you. But how to deal with these first. almost instinctive, reaction patterns when you find yourself in a stressful situation. You ain’t got time to lay on the couch talking to a psychologist about your mother when you are lost, right?

Rewire your brain

Just as with your gear, your mindset and behaviour should be well equipped before you leave. You need to know where your own Goblins are hiding, everybody has them, no exceptions – even your survival and outdoor heroes need to deal with themThe difference between us, and these heroes and survivors, is that they have practiced reinforcing helpful behaviour, and that they have done it so often that these reactions became a second nature. When you are looking closely, you will find that learning these ‘psychological skills’, is pretty much the same as learning any other skill.

  1. You need to know where your current skills are lacking: Where are your Goblins hiding, what behaviour is not helping or could be dangerous in certain situations?
  2. Learn a new proper technique: Replace your current behaviour with a helpful pattern.
  3. Perfect your new learned technique: Continue to reinforce the helpful behaviour until this becomes your dominant response.

An amazing tool to interrupt your Goblins, is to use the STOP technique.  This simple tool forces you to stop your monkey mind, and use your ‘System 2’, more slower and fact driven way of thinking. STOP stands for: Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. To physically stop with what you where doing and thinking,  make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee. In doing so you make room to assess the situation carefully, but also created space to implement helpful behaviour. Just as any skill this takes practice, but is well worth the effort.


We need to have a good look at ourselves to know what our pitfalls are.

You remember me running around like crazy in the woods? What if I STOPped this monkey reaction from happening in the first place, by making myself a cup of tea or taking. When my monkey mind has come to a calm, I think about how I got here – what did I miss, where did I go wrong? I assess where I am, and see marks of a trail. Subtle clues I probably would have missed when running around like crazy. I observe my surroundings, my map, my compass – and think of a plan to make my way out of the woods. I mark the spot from where I left, leaving an arrow in the direction I left off – and continue my way safely.

Replacing unhelpful learned patterns, work in acute and less acute situations. We need to have a good look at ourselves to know what our pitfalls are. Reflect on your behaviour, and assess why you behave in a certain way – does this help you? If the answer is no, replace the behaviour with one that will help you. In this way, you take your Goblins out, one by one. In the sweet spot were fear and shame collide, we tend to make our worst decisions. Have some strong behaviour set into place to ensure your survival, at any time.



Final thoughts
Psychological skills and mindset can be just as important as all your gear combined. The Greeks had it right when they said ‘Know thyself’. Learning about your mind and behaviour can be just as useful as learning about your surrounding. The superlative is learning about, and practicing behaviour and skills, when outdoors. We therefor like to put ourselves to the test, see how and why we react when our limits have met. Have you ever found yourself in a situation when you were able to change your monkey mind behaviour, into a helpful reaction?

Feel free to share a comment, advice, question or your thoughts on this subject. They are always much appreciated!

Final pondering:


Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
~Abraham Lincoln

Further reading
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters

Mentioned theories
Drive theory by Zajonc (1965)
Inverted U-theory, modified, by Arent & Landers (2003)
Johari Window (known knowns etc.) by Luft and Ingham (1955)


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