How Strong is Your Monkey Brain?

Related: What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It?

My friends talk about monkey brains sometimes as a shorthand for social urges that they themselves don’t want to have. Think: over-obsessing over some trivial social interaction with a sparkly new person, feeling FOMO even though not going to the party was the right move, feeling an urge to leave your objectively wonderful partner because what if there was someone else out there that was even better, that kind of thing. Generally the monkey brain is seen as a bad thing but also acknowledged as an important signal for if you’re missing some social nutrient.

This is obvious but I think it’s worth spelling out: for any problem they may face, people exist on a spectrum of [very strong and almost insurmountable monkey brain urges] to [people who have very weak and easily ignorable monkey brain urges].

Some things I have observed that have brought me to this conclusion:


People can mean very different things when they say they’re touch-starved.

For me, it means maybe I kind of want a hug, but it’s not a big deal if I can’t get one and I’m not going to change any outwards behaviour because of it.

For some friends, it means that they’re going to start keeping an eye out for opportunities to cuddle (e.g. party invites), or pull out their dating app of choice and start swiping to try to get a date in the near future.

One poor friend has described it as going through withdrawal, and being in something like an obsessive state – all their brain power involuntarily focused on how to immediately get their skin on someone else’s, and an inability to focus on anything else.

Needless to say, my friends and I do not deal with being touch-starved the same way. Some folks need to dedicate time and energy to actively manage it, I do not.

(You can generalize this to a lot of other bodily things – my hunger is unpleasant and gives me an increasingly strong urge to eat stuff; one of my friends described their hunger as something easily ignorable and not even necessarily bad feeling. When you talk to someone about being sleepy, or angry, or horny, you might be talking about completely different experiences without knowing it.)


I like having nice things. It was really hard for me to get a handle on it in university; I’d struggle to stay within a fairly generous budget while I felt like some friends had a psychologically easier time getting by on half of what I had.

I was paying through undergrad by myself and some government loans, and it was really challenging for me to not buy the frivolous things I wanted (books, clothes, craft supplies, video games), even when I knew I couldn’t really justify or afford it.

Once or twice, I went into my internship terms with 1-2k in credit card debt to pay off over the term, even though credit card debt was really scary to me and I tried really hard to never be in it.

These days I don’t struggle with money the same way, but only because I have a job that pays me okay. I think if I was getting by on a minimum wage job I’d probably crack and start racking up credit card debt again within a year.

I know really poor people who are not in credit card debt, I don’t think credit card debt is an inevitability. It’s just something about me.


I might be typical minding for this one, but stick with me here.

Cheating on a romantic partner seems to me like such dumb and terrible thing to do that it’s really hard for me to believe that people do it on purpose. However, according to (an unsourced claim on) wikipedia, “around 30–40% of unmarried relationships and 18–20% of marriages see at least one incident of sexual infidelity.” This number seems ludicrously large to me, although maybe it shouldn’t.

And I’ve seen really smart friends risk their deeply loving relationships for incredibly ill-advised flings.

Like, look, if you’re a sociopath, maybe on a business trip to a city you have no friends in, you can find a cute person on tinder and you can have a fun time with them without your partner finding out – just delete the app before you go home. This is a terrible thing to do, but you’re at least being somewhat smart about it.

But say you’re at a small party with your spouse of ten years and good friends that go way back with both you and your partner. Sure, you can shoot your shot, risking (1) a treasured friendship with the person you’re hitting on, (2) destabilizing the entire friendgroup, (3) your own perfectly good marriage, and (4) your own reputation within your primary support network, but, why on god’s green earth would you???

Like, no one in their right minds who can think about this for ten seconds would endorse doing this? But the thing is, if I had a nickel every time I hear about something like this happening in my extended friend circle, you’d be surprised at the number of nickels I have((idk maybe you wouldn’t. it’s like 2.5?)). And sure, I didn’t have the full story for any of these nickels, but their ill-advisedness still seem very overdetermined to me. And that’s how I noticed that I was confused.

If my smart and emotionally aware friends((sorry yes i know, holy mother of informed attributes, just trust me)) are doing this, it must go beyond intelligence, good judgement, or moral character. There must be some sort of higher lower higher power controlling at least some people’s actions, at least some of the time. And I’ve been generally thinking about it as the monkey brain for lack of a better term.

I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new or brave in this essay. I’m just repeating stuff that lots of fat activists and disability activists and autism activists have said, generalizing, and adding in a little rhetorical flourish.

But when I fall short of my own ideals, this way of thinking helps me strategize better instead of beating myself up about it((It’s like a spoons theory DLC!)).

And when I see all the little ways my friends slightly ruin their lives, it helps me extend a little more grace and understanding their way.

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