05/01/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

The Jungle Professors of Chimpanzee -- How the Chimps of Gombe Taught Me to be More Human

When I attended the preview of Chimpanzee, the new Disneynature film showing a group of chimpanzees surviving in a dense forest in Uganda, I was reminded of my own experience as a young man studying Jane Goodall's famous chimps in Gombe, Africa several decades ago -- and how it forever changed the way I view the world.

As a family doctor and the father of two boys, I realize each day how much these chimps living in remote valleys along the shores of Lake Tanganyika taught me about parenting and healing.

I learned lessons from the chimps that helped me to be more confident in giving parenting advice. The four chimp mothers I studied in Africa especially taught me about patience, mother-infant bonding and about the tough job of raising offspring in the wild. Acknowledging that genetics also plays a role, it is clear that stable and devoted mothering seems to produce successful offspring.

For example, the matriarch chimp, Fifi, showed enormous affection and devotion to her son, Freud. I observed how Freud's powerful sense of purpose and natural competence was nurtured by his attentive and reassuring mother.

Fifi's confident and even playful mothering perhaps contributed to the high-ranking status of her offspring. Freud would grow up to be the leader of the Gombe chimpanzees and his younger brother, Frodo, would follow in his footsteps. Fifi birthed nine vigorous offspring over a thirty-year period.

I was also a beneficiary of Fifi's talented mothering techniques. Early on in my medical practice, a mother of a five-month old child I delivered asked if holding and rocking her child a lot might spoil her. I remembered observing from sunrise to sunset the nursing and close body contact of young chimps with their mothers, which occurs for three to four years in the wild. These nurturing bonds with offspring last a lifetime. In the field with chimps, I noticed that if chimp mothers were anxious or inattentive, their offspring seemed to have a harder time achieving confidence in their roles within the community.

"Don't worry," I told the new mother, "you're forming a life-long bond during these close times shared with your child."

To this day, Fifi's picture hangs in my medical exam room to remind me of a very successful chimp mother who also inspired me with an education not found in textbooks or lectures.

Witnessing life and death in the Gombe forest with Dr. Goodall also prepared me to be a better listener and witness to my own patients' as they struggle with the same joys and losses as any other species. Thanks to these primates, I now look at human behavior with more attention to fundamental needs in my patients. I can always keep in mind the elements crucial to a developing chimp in the forest and surmise what is missing in the lives of children and adults.

Another example of how my chimp apprenticeship helped me in my medical practice was a 28-year-old patient who saw me recently for his increasing anxiety, especially while driving his car. As he described the tension in his body while behind the wheel, I pictured the alpha male chimpanzee, Figan, similarly tense when winding up for one of his powerful displays of aggression used to scare off a predator. But, unlike Figan who could charge down a hillside and burn off the built-up adrenaline, my patient was instead strapped and immobilized into the seat of a car. What happens to all those primal urges of ours when we cannot freely express them?

I designed a vigorous exercise program for my patient to help him cope with his anxiety. Additionally, we practiced a relaxation exercise in which he imagined himself in a calm and reassuring place. He immediately pictured a serene scene of an apple orchard from his childhood. This visualization eased his anxiety and illustrates how a strong connection to nature provides crucial balance in our everyday busy lives.

Since my research days as a college student with Gombe's chimps, I have come to look at human behavior from an evolutionary perspective. This means seeing our actions and reactions in the light of how evolution has hard-wired us to survive. For example, one ten-year old patient of mine with ADHD who was hyperactive and lacked focus in the classroom had a very quick response time, but had a problem with constantly looking around and moving in class. Instead of focusing on the potentially negative aspects of the condition, I told him, "These traits are there for a reason. And if I were in a forest, I'd want someone with your quick skills to protect me!" With this view in mind, we then designed a treatment plan for the boy.

In many ways, the chimps in the film and the chimps at Gombe are "so much like us," as famed primatologist Jane Goodall would say. Dame Jane works tirelessly as she travels around the world raising awareness for the need to preserve our precious resources at a time when many species on earth, like the chimpanzees, are endangered. The Jane Goodall Institute is fighting hard to protect these magnificent primates from extinction.

When you watch the film, apprentice with these primate cousins and "jungle professors" to see how chimpanzee communication and nurturing skills help both them -- and us - to flourish.

The Jane Goodall Institute's website describes her research and current work.