What Is Instinct?

Some experts argue whether survival is an inborn trait or not.
The strong, protective feeling mothers have towards their children is called the maternal instinct.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2014
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Instinct is a complicated term, especially as applied to human health and wellness. In the animal world, minus human involvement, it’s often easy to see that an animal species will have certain built-in factors or ways of being that cause them to predictably act in a variety of circumstances. Salmon will swim upstream to spawn at a certain time, many animals will attack anything that threatens offspring, a cornered animal will either fight, run, or play dead, and most animals have built in food-seeking behavior.

In humans, it is often suggested that modern technology makes people less in touch with their instinctual selves, and that they may be unhappy due to the fact that they are instinct driven or never use their instincts. What happens, for instance, to the child rearing/nurturing instinct when mom sees a baby for an hour at the end of a long workday, or how do instincts to perpetuate the species change when people use birth control? These questions don’t represent a value judgment on such choices, but they may slightly change what things might be considered instinctual, or make people realize they’re not acting in an “inborn” and traditional way, possibly creating discomfort.

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There are also questions as to what things are truly human instincts or what are people’s inborn traits. There are a few examples commonly cited including instinct to survive, maternal instinct, and fight/flight response. Others do exist, but they may be difficult to argue as fully instinctual.

Some people even argue about whether survival is an inborn trait. It is certainly not present to great degree in newborns, young children and even teenagers. People will do things like habitually eat, find a warm place to sleep and possibly fight if they’re threatened, but behavior of kids seems to be pose a constant and drawn-out exploration of the world that threatens survival continuously.

From the moment the baby puts the penny in his mouth and tries to choke on it to the instant when a teen drives off too quickly in a car, survival is continually being risked. Moreover, how does the fireman run into the burning building to rescue others instead of keeping away from it, and why do instincts like hunger/survival lead to overeating that may shorten life? There is also a good argument to be made that collective behavior of the human species tends not toward survival but toward destruction of species, through support of various activities that may ultimately sharply reduce ability to produce food.

Certainly, humans have some instincts that are considered very normal. The maternal instinct often arises when a baby is first put into the arms of the mother, and the reaction can be observed chemically by looking at increases in hormones. This does not always occur and conditions like post-partum depression, may interfere with normal hormonal increases, changing mother/child interaction, unless a woman gets assistance. When the reaction is “as normal” strong protective feelings for the child can flood the mother and many describe this as feeling a love that is very strong and intense, knowing that there is little they wouldn’t do to protect the child.

The child instinctively needs the mother too, and in fact, without a consistent caregiver child development may dramatically decrease, and infant death can sometimes occur. Even when children’s needs are physically met, without a single caregiver and a infant/caretaker bond, anaclitic depression can develop, resulting in huge losses developmentally and sometimes in mental conditions like attachment disorder. This scenario has been observed repeatedly in orphanages and in hospital settings, suggesting strong social instinct in the newborn.

Another observable human instinct is fight/flight reactions. In situations that are perceived to be dangerous, people may have huge increases in adrenaline that cause them to either rise to the danger and fight it, physically or otherwise, or quickly flee the scene. This can malfunction in humans too, and people with panic disorder may have an overly activated system that signals fight/flight response when no danger is present. In all people, danger may be real or perceived to be real, and it could be physical or theoretical.

Perhaps the most difficult part about understanding human instinct is that human brains are complex and may sometimes override instinct or over express it. People seem less tied to instinctual behavior than are other animals, and centuries of philosophy and theology have been aimed at addressing the issue of whether the spirit can be stronger the flesh, with many religions certainly answering that it can. From a pragmatic and scientific standpoint, and not from a moral one, creating this intellectual divide between flesh/spirit may not be particularly healthful, since it also divides humans from what could be the most natural elements of their existence.

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