What is instinct? What remains of the animal instinct in us humans? Can we trust our instincts? And what does science say about all of this?
Many questions still arise today about a concept as complex and as basic as instinct, which does not have the same meaning in popular psychology as for the followers of Freud or for current neurosciences. In this article, we will see what are the main ways to understand and define this concept.
What is instinct? Several interpretations of this concept
There are several ways of thinking about instincts. Below we will see the highlights.
We all learn in our school stage the same definition of instinct: innate, stereotypical and specific behavior that is triggered by certain types of stimuli and that it continues until consumption, even in the absence of the stimulation that caused it.
For Darwin, instincts were an essential part of the nature of all living things. It is instinct that enables sustenance, The relationship with the environment and with other individuals of the same species.
The same instinct that drives bees to build geometric panels or that allows birds to migrate thousands of kilometers across seas only to return months later to their place of origin.
But what if we try to transfer the Darwinian instinct to the human being? Are we keeping the same capacity as other animals? Sometimes instincts such as reproduction or feeding they seem to conflict with our ability to act of our own accord.
Animal instinct vs human instinct
A priori, the most common explanation is that instinct is something inherited and innate and that we are born with. We can verify this with a multitude of animals, including our favorite pets. Who has not seen his dog salivate while feeding him? It seems obvious that in the animal kingdom instincts are preserved and perform their vital function.
However … what happens to humans? Let’s take an example: food instinct. This primary instinct allows all living things to balance their needs for energy and rest. So far, so good. But what about disorders like anorexia or bulimia?
Human beings are the only animal capable of challenging the nature of their instincts. We are the only living beings who they can act against the perpetuation of our own species. And that would also break the instinct par excellence, which is none other than the instinct for survival.
It seems, however, that yes another series of instincts exists, such as that of cooperation or that of the religious (Currently Researched) that they are characteristic of human beings and that they have helped us evolve as a species and become one of nature’s most complex creatures.
Freud’s theory of instincts
Another approach to understanding a concept like that of instinct was discussed in its time Sigmund Freud, for whom instincts are specific forms of tension of a supposed psychic energy, Of energizing action, which express bodily needs and produce all the characteristic phenomena of life.
Instinct would be a pressure which would produce the need for a reaction and would oblige it to be carried out. this approach he perceives instinct more as a need than as an innate sensation or a behavior which provokes this need.
For Freud and the current of psychoanalysis resulting from his theoretical approaches, mental phenomena and social activities would be determined by the constant need to reduce these tensions produced by instincts, which would constitute the motor of human life and would be perceived. like disturbing and unpleasant feelings.
This view of instinct is, of course, an approach without any scientific basis, although it is very popular to come from a figure as controversial as Freud always was.
Instinct in popular psychology
The concept of instinct has given rise to various interpretations of it in popular psychology. Let’s take a look at several of these designs.
Instinct as intuition
Again instinct and intuition are not the sameIt is very common to use them in contexts where the two concepts are mixed. Instinct understood here as a way of knowing or acting based on feelings, sensations and motivations, whether bodily or cognitive, but which do not come from a calm analysis, but seem to erupt from a stroke.
Something similar happens with the maternal instinct: although there is no scientific proof of its existence, the term has become popular to define a kind of impulse that causes a woman to feel motivated and driven by an offspring present. Although motherhood is a desire that takes different forms in every woman and sometimes can never happen.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist and the foremost representative of humanistic psychology. Maslow argued that all human beings have essential basic needs for the maintenance of health, including love or esteem.
Maslow began to popularize terms such as desire or motivation to symbolize these types of instincts or internal needs of each of us, claiming that these “instinctual” needs were some kind of genetically constructed instincts within each of us.
Weisinger’s modern instinct
In the 21st century, the understanding of the term instinct has changed considerably. The meaning has been reformulated, and figures like Hendrie Weisinger, clinical psychologist and author of The Genius of Instinct, have attempted to explain that instincts are neither dark nor primitive, nor something that needs to be suppressed.
According to Weisinger, human behavior is smarter than animals because we have more instincts, And not the other way around. With them, we would already have everything we need to improve our lives; that is, we would be “programmed” to be successful.
This psychologist also postulates that human beings have lost touch with their instincts and that, in most cases, they act against what they were urging them to do. According to him, we could improve all aspects of our life by reclaiming our instincts and using them to our advantage.
Instinct and free will
Recent scientific research has undermined the knowledge we have so far about instincts, free will and human will. Studies conclude that we act before we think, driven by our instincts and emotions.
It seems that the awareness of having made a decision comes when in fact we have already made it. And it is that our decisions could be subconsciously predetermined seconds before our consciousness perceives them as if it had made them in a premeditated way.
However, all is not lost. Our behavior is largely due to the habits and customs that we have acquired throughout our life. And here free will comes into play.
If, for example, a person decides to react aggressively whenever their survival instinct feels under attack, and thus reaffirms this with their experiences, that person has applied their free will to anticipate their future aggressive responses to any attack. This “premeditation” will therefore have been conditioned by education and the environment, but also by their capacity for personal choice.
- Pinker, S. (1994). The instinct of language: how language creates the mind. Madrid: Editorial alliance.
- Frandsen, G. (2013). Man and the rest of the animals. Tinkuy No. 20, 56-78.