For Better Results, Mind Your Monkey

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” 1 Yet even he never got the full truth of this, if recent findings from brain science are any indication.

Indeed, most of life is imaginary: it happens largely in our emotions, perceptions, memories, opinions, values and beliefs. And according to Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about 90% of our doubts and fears about the present and the future stem from our memory projections from the past — not from what actually exists right now outside the mind.

So our lush imaginations are a force to reckon with at work, at home and beyond.

Einstein’s maxim worked out pretty well for him; he put vivid ideation in service of his life’s work. But an aimlessly wandering mind can cause trouble. All too often our unchecked imagining provokes undue worry, dread, frustration or shame. It’s a natural function of our brains’ default mode network (DMN), which researchers discovered just this past decade.

The DMN evolved naturally to ensure our survival in more primitive times, and it remains vital to us. But since the real threats we face have changed so much since then, today the DMN keeps us in a negativity bias that has somewhat outlived its usefulness.

Psychologist Rick Hanson calls this needless preoccupation with downer thoughts “a well intended universal learning disability.” 2 Our happiness and productivity suffer in its grip. (And not to pick on negativity: even being distracted by positive thoughts can lead to unhappiness, according to Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine.)

All this mental mayhem has been plaguing us for centuries, if not millennia. As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make … a hell of heaven.” If thinking our own idle thoughts can wreak hell, so can pondering new paradigms that society serves up. James Gleick touched on this in his 2008 book Chaos: Making a New Science : “Ideas that require people to reorganize their picture of the world provoke hostility.”


So ruminating on imaginary bad stuff does more than just breed unproductive bummers. “Monkey Minding” like that can also suppress the healthy potential of people and their relationships.

Here’s a quick run-through of the basic neurophysiology: Holding a negative thought or image (even if it’s pure fantasy) lights up the brain’s right prefrontal cortex. This stimulates our fear centers in the amygdala, which in turn dampens our motivation by shutting down the nucleus accumbens.

This sequence also shuts down the left prefrontal cortex: that’s the seat of constructive executive functioning; i.e., our ability to intentionally stay calm, be logical, and make reasonable decisions to achieve our desired goals. Fearful ideas (again, no matter how fictional or far-off) also cause our adrenalin to rise, which then lowers oxytocin — the hormone and neurotransmitter that promotes our well-being through bonding with others.

“Are you what WE were, before we learned to talk and made a mess of everything? — Astronaut Brent to simians in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Mental chatter about troublesome things passes easily into the spoken word. When negative Monkey Mind becomes nay-saying Monkey Mouth, that’s when individual and team progress can really deteriorate. In my work facilitating leader and team development via outdoor action learning, I see groups rapidly unravel when their cross-talk tanks. The most vivid example of this happens with one particular activity, which someone in a team might declare futile after I explain the objective without disclosing any viable method.

“Oh, that’s impossible!” they’ll pronounce with conviction and defeat — sometimes before even wondering how they might accomplish it. Just one person voicing this can palpably suck life out of a team endeavor right at the start. It often clouds their sense of shared purpose and mutual commitment, which further dampens their aspiration and motivation.

This defeatism can actually fire up the brain’s avoidance circuit and shut down its approach circuit, reducing creative capacity for finding an effective solution. Groups that remain in this mindset exhibit noticeably less cohesion, collaboration, focus, energy, resilience, innovation, growth and satisfaction by end of the activity.

“Those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it.” — Chinese Proverb

In contrast, groups that engage positive possibility thinking and speech typically exhibit these features to a greater extent. Such teams invest more in suspending their doubt, getting curious, experimenting, and leveraging fails as well as gains. They visualize what success would look like in form and action, change their frame of reference, import ideas from other experiences, and actively offer / enlist each other’s help. And then energize themselves to go even further by celebrating incremental progress.

When I review the end-to-end performance of teams like this on ambiguous challenges like this, it does seem that imagination was more important than knowledge, especially while they still lacked proven know-how in the course of their striving.

It brings to mind the apocryphal story my high-school calculus teacher told us. The one about the math professor who put a bonus question on the test, which he openly tagged as a classic problem long considered insoluble. “If you want to earn some extra credit, give it a go. But don’t knock yourself out, because no one’s ever solved it.” A few test takers made some attempts, and didn’t get far. One student missed class that day and had to take the exam later, all alone. Except he didn’t get the memo about the bonus problem being impossible … and, well, he solved it. 3


Of course, what I’m sharing here is all merely correlative anecdote, not causal scientific proof. But words do color our experience of life and they can profoundly affect outcomes.

That’s hard for me to deny after directly working with dozens of highly mixed teams and hundreds of diverse individuals, and hearing how they talk to each other. I’ve witnessed many scenarios of expansive ‘imagineering’ pan out, and many cases of contracted impossibility thinking fizzle out. The difference in their respective results is striking enough that I urge my clients to be closely aware of their verbiage, spoken and silent.

Defining problems in unsolvable terms keeps us stuck in the status quo. And recent brain studies reveal how this can harm our health and our relationships.

According to neurocognitive researchers Mark Waldman and Andrew Newberg, MD, hearing / seeing “NO” or other negative words releases stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters in our bodies — which instantly crimps our normal communication, language processing, reasoning and logical abilities.

One critical effect of this is to weaken cooperation and trust between people. Ruminating on such words can actually impair our sleep, appetite, and capacity for long-term happiness and satisfaction. 4 When we string these words into phrases, they become the mental chattering of our weaknesses, worries, doubts and fears. (To defuse it, try this Companion Tool [not currently linked].)

In light of all this, Einstein’s claim about imagination takes on a whole new import. It underscores the very real impact that mere thoughts can have, internally and externally. To quote another famous philosophical Al,

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry,
but why on earth should that mean that it is not real? ”


So consider taming your Monkey Mind to coax more Possibility Thinking … and then express it to others. These two concepts converged from early 2016 through early 2017, the (Chinese) Year of the Fire Monkey 6. That Year also happened to span US Presidential campaigning, elections and inauguration. (Witness the new world we inhabit, spawned in part by expressed thoughts that flew back and forth then across the United States.)

A natural, dynamic and charismatic leader, Fire Monkey is “Wizard of the Impossible” bearing a heart “filled with potent magic that could cast a hundred spells.” 7 He’s a lively icon of creative invention and of what I’ve come to call Empossibled Curiosity ©. 8

But if he’s running Monkey Mind, watch out and slow down. Because Fire Monkey is also impulsive, aggressive and reckless. And the mental chatter of a fiery imagination can wreak real havoc, whether or not its words are voiced.

… Or to quote that other wizard (again):

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” 5


1 “What Life Means to Einstein / An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck,”
 Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929, p. 117.

2 “Train Your Brain for Happiness” interview of Rick Hanson, PhD (Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley) by Tami Simon, Sounds True, April 2017

3 If you actually did this, or know (of) someone who did, please inform me.

4 “The Most Dangerous Word in the World,” posted Aug 01, 2012, Psychology Today website

5 Professor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

6 The Year of the Fire Monkey spans 8 February 2016 to 27 January 2017.

7 The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes by Theodora Lau

8 A key factor I observe over and over again as a developmental coach, which moves aspiring leaders and their team mates through fear, fumbling, falling and failing, to constructive action / outcomes

‘Thinking Monkey’ cover image by Jesse Piercy at

* * *

— Laura J. Nigro, MS

updated 29 Jan 2018

Originally published in the Jan 2016 issue of Re-Wire, SciEnspire!’s newsletter to amp up awareness and catalyze change. With content grounded in empirical evidence from emerging brain science. Inspired by our longing for connection, expression, exploration and growth.

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