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May 21 BigDug
May 21 BigDug

Staff management – How neuroscience can teach you how to push the right buttons

May 24, 2021, 10:49 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Professor Steven Peters, consultant psychiatrist specialising in the functioning of the human mind and author of The Chimp Paradox, speaks about his life and career...
Staff management – How neuroscience can teach you how to push the right buttons

Can you tell us about your early career?

I’m a doctor. I began in surgery and when I started you could move around the fields a lot more. I was involved in cardiology, gastroenterology and then ended up doing some GP work. During the GP training, I came across psychiatry as a discipline and realised how important the mind is and how the neuroscience of the mind works, which fascinated me.

I went down that route and ended up as a consultant psychiatrist, worked in the NHS for 20 years, and became a specialist in the functioning of the mind. At the same time, I became an academic. I trained as a teacher early in my career and then started teaching medicine. I’m still at Sheffield University and became a professor there.

How did that lead you into writing your self-help books?

My vision was to help people get insights into the way that their own mind works. A lot of patients that came through the door didn’t need medication, they needed understanding and insights into the way that their mind was functioning. Then, how to apply those insights to gain quality of life, to do good decision making, to problem solve and so on.

What is it about your books that clicked with people?

I’ve written three personal development books, My Hidden Chimp, aimed at children five to 12 years old, The Silent Guides for teachers, parents and carers, and The Chimp Paradox – which I am humbled by the fact it is now the number one selling self-help book of all time in the UK .

In the mid 90s, as a doctor in hospital, it dawned on me that we share our mind with a machine. We live in a body, it’s fixed and we work with what we’ve got. And it’s the same with the mind. We live in a mind and it has got some genetic fixing.

We have to learn to understand and work with that machine in our head. When I got that, and saw the neuroscience backing it, I realised that there were various systems within the brain which were colliding and causing conflict. There are two thinking parts of your brain, plus a third back-up system. And you need to understand how these work because only one of them is you.

I began to teach this to medical students in an entertaining way, coming up with the Chimp Paradox. You have this brain system, the inner chimp, which chimpanzees share with us and operate very similar to us. But you have a human system, which they don’t really have.

They have a very primitive human system, we have a very powerful human system and the two collide. I think the reason people resonate with it is because it’s based on neuroscience. It’s not just a model, it’s science explained in a simplified and accessible way.

How do you then take that into primary schools for teachers?

This is where neuroscience comes in. We have this system, we need to understand it in order to operate it well, because sometimes there are counterintuitive aspects to the machine.

But if we start recognising that if we press certain buttons in the machine we get certain outcomes, we can start understanding how to manage our emotions, our thinking and our behaviours. That’s where I started and recognised that once you give people the understanding and insight, they then apply this as a skill, and it’s a skill for life, it’s not a process or a trick or a technique.

So I empower people to realise it’s their decision how they want to run the machine, all I can do is to inform them as to the rules of the machine and how it’s structured and functions.

How has this gone down with teachers?

With our research partners (RDaSH Centre for Psychological Research and academics from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge) we have recently conducted a feasibility study with 184 teachers, looking at whether our ‘Mind Management: Skills for Life’ course could help teachers to meet their personal goals and improve their wellbeing. The course consists of eight workshops. We go from the basics of the neuroscience of the mind, right through to people exploring their individual uniqueness.

And that’s what The Chimp Model is trying to bring to teachers. Ultimately, teachers get to be in a really great place within themselves. Going forwards they’ll be able to operate within the classroom in a way that they feel really comfortable and confident with.

The feasibility study offered encouraging results and we have since gone on to implement a scientific randomised controlled trial with around 200 nurses in the NHS. In relation to the teachers, the aim is for them to be confident, happy, really proactive people who have a great relationship with themselves and, therefore, can then help the children who are under their guidance and care.

The purpose of The Silent Guides was to help teachers and parents and provide the science behind the children’s book My Hidden Chimp. In relation to My Hidden Chimp we have now developed a selection of workshops and programmes following numerous requests from teachers. These workshops help support children and embed The Chimp Model within schools working with the children, teachers and pastoral leads.

Why do you feel so strongly about mental health?

We’re trying to get people to take their psychological health seriously. To really stop, reflect and think that if you are in a good place what difference will it make to the quality of your life? That’s the message I’m saying, stop in your tracks and just think if I really take time to develop and understand myself, start to manage my feelings, my thinking, my emotions, my behaviour, how much will that make a difference to me as a person? And if the answer is significant, then find something that resonates with you, whether it’s neuroscience or it’s something outside of that.

So what does the course cover?

We look at the way the mind is structured and what the rules of the mind are, so people understand that doing certain things will have consequences. We also teach how the mind communicates to us via emotion. So then we can start recognising what the mind is telling us and what we need to do with that emotion.
For example, we do a workshop on how you can turn stress into positive actions. Instead of engaging with stress, and seeing it more as a problem, we’re trying to see it as a call for action and show how to go forward with that.

Then stress can become a positive factor in our life, not a negative. Stress will happen, we don’t have to engage with it. We also look at things like happiness, how do we get peace of mind and happiness? What are the stabilising factors in the mind? We structure it so that people understand the three key factors to look at the way the mind gets stability and how to get inner peace. We also look at things like confidence levels. We go across the mind almost like you do an MOT on a car. We look at all aspects of the mind and address them. It’s just trying to help people protect their psychological health and give them direction. Most people want to do this but don’t know how.

That’s the problem that I’ve come up against. And that’s why over 20 years in the NHS, doing this individually, I suddenly thought, I really need to take this much more widely to the public and support the staff who I want to help, which is the blue light services, the teachers and the NHS.

Career timeline

  • 1974/75
    Degree in Maths and PGCE in Education
  • 1999
    Master of Education (Medical Education)
  • 1996
    Senior Clinical lecturer and Consultant Psychiatrist
  • 2003
    Undergraduate Dean at The University of Sheffield Medical School and winner of The University of Sheffield Senate award for teaching excellence (2nd consecutive year)
  • 2012
    The Chimp Paradox Published – it is now the number one selling self-help book of all time in the UK
  • 2013
    Awarded Professorship at The University of Sheffield