Sunday 17th July 2016

Do you control instinct, or does it control you?

Instinct in animals is a subject that has always fascinated me. How do birds and fish navigate huge distances with pinpoint accuracy? How does a spider know how to construct its web? How do bees communicate navigational information to the rest of their hive? These animals all have tiny brains and yet can perform complex tasks that are way beyond our vastly superior mental powers.

It was thought that birds are taught how to fly by their parents or by other birds. However when young birds are raised in isolation and then released at an age when other birds would be expected to fly they were able to do so. They did not have the benefit of any learning experience, so therefore a significant part of their brain has presumably been hardwired with flight instructions during its development.

So is it possible that much of our human behaviour might be more instinctive than we might think? Not according to most scientists, who believe that instincts are much less important in humans than in animals. This is because of our vastly more powerful cerebral cortex. It can process huge amounts of data learnt from parental experience and the nurturing process. Whilst the scientific view might be true I have an uncomfortable suspicion that it is very far from being the whole truth.

Interestingly the word instinct is often loosely used to refer to intuition or even clairvoyance. These are also fascinating subjects. I have written about the importance of intuition in many previous blogs and consider it the most valuable quality that a person can possess. Much of my work with clients concentrates on the importance of improving intuition skills.

I am far from alone in my belief in the value of intuition. French surgeon Alexis Carrel won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1912. His techniques for rejoining blood vessels are still used in transplant surgery to this day. Surgery is by necessity a practical specialty, but Carrel was a controversial free thinker too. He also believed that unseen forces can shape our destiny.

‘Intuition comes very close to clairvoyance; it appears to be the extrasensory perception of reality.’ 

These convictions about intuition are not just held by scientists. Poet and author Robert Graves also knew its value.

‘Intuition is the supra-logic that cuts out all the routine processes of thought and leaps straight from the problem to the answer.’ 

This comment is particularly interesting because if it is true then there are obvious evolutionary benefits attached to intuition. There are times when we need to make very rapid decisions. The problem is that we have such a powerful brain and therefore so many possible options to process that it delays our response. There are definitely times when we think too much. Less is more.

As I mentioned earlier in this blog instinct is not considered as important in modern psychology as was previously thought. Freud referred to id instincts, which I touched upon in a recent blog. In another recent blog about the reptilian brain I mentioned the work of Abraham Maslow. I did not know it at the time but he was also interested in the origin of instinct, but concluded that it was not important in humans. He believed that our instincts are only strong drives and therefore could be overridden by conscious thought. I am not so sure about this either. If it is true then it would require a high degree of willpower, and this is not a quality that all people possess.

So what does all this mean to us? I am fascinated by the crazy decisions that people make, particularly when under stress. I suggested in recent blogs that much of our behaviour is less complex than we might imagine. In my last blog about the reptilian brain I also suggested that our higher mental functions often serve to justify crazy decisions rather than to generate original and rational thought.

So there may be closer associations between the theories of the unconscious mind shared by of Freud, Jung, and Maslow, and the work of Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz, whose research on instinctive behaviour in animals is widely respected.

When I started this series of articles I had an uncomfortable feeling that our decision-making is far less rational then we choose to believe. As I researched further and wrote more articles this conviction has grown, as has my discomfort level.

Is it really true that we have so little freedom of thought to show for our evolutionary development as the most intelligent of all species? If so then this is a sad indictment of our progress to date. Unfortunately there are many current examples of depraved human behaviour in our so-called civilised world to support this hypothesis.

What are the implications for therapists and their clients? One consequence is that psychological interventions targeted at our rational mind are not likely to be effective without developing techniques that can modify behaviours arising much deeper in the reptilian brain. The results of conventional therapy are generally poor, and this is a possible explanation. We are targeting our efforts in the wrong place. Food for thought.

What are the implications for you? Any self-knowledge will be of some value but I have an uncomfortable feeling that a large part of this jigsaw puzzle is still missing. A ray of hope is that I have an idea where to look for more clues, and this will be the subject of my next blog.

I certainly hope to end this series of articles and videos on an uplifting note.  Watch this space for a brighter future!