Why do we call human instinct 'crazy'?

By | April 22, 2012
Weekend reflections on life

The weather forecast says sunny with 10% chance of rain. Nonetheless, I hand over the kids to my husband and tell him I need to mow the lawn now, before the rain comes, there isn't enough time to have the kids 'help' me mow the lawn. I can feel the rain coming, too. Sure enough, the first drops come as I just finish. As I head back inside, I hear thunder.

Am I crazy? This isn't the first or only time that I 'feel the force'. But it is the first time I discuss it publically. Why is it that we are the only species on the planet that trains ourselves (and our offspring) to ignore our instinct? An alien looking down would probably wonder at our stupidity in disregarding our own abilities.

North american indians say that you can feel the rain coming when the hairs on your fingers stand up (there's a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, if you care to know). I find it is the smell of rain in the air. Perhaps there are also other signs. But just as dogs know when a thunderstorm is coming, so should we – if we don't ignore our instinct.

I know that instinct also tells us when a person whom we hold dear dies – my grandfather died as I was in the airport catching a plane after visiting him; I remember the very moment but only was told after I'd landed. I also know that it tells us when it's time to go to the toilet – my two-month-old daughter doesn't need diapers anymore. I get confused and amazed stares all the time, especially when she 'has to go' in public (typically a restroom or bush, if available).

But, it leaves lots of questions open. I still wonder: what else does human instinct tell us? Why do we humans, in our scientific glory, train ourselves to ignore it, and then call people who don't ignore it 'crazy'? Do people in subsistance villiages, and nomads, know much more about following instinct – and can they help us regain our instincts? How exactly does instinct work – and more particularly, how does feeling a death work, something that is rather unexplainable by modern science?

17 thoughts on “Why do we call human instinct 'crazy'?

  1. Chris Harrington

    +Jeremy Foote We just need a better understanding of our so-called instincts and senses or feelings that is rooted in science, and then a reflection of that knowledge in the way we educate our children. The instinct versus science duality itself is to me nothing more than an artifact left over from the fear that the rationalists had of Church persecution as we came out of the dark ages. The group of phenomena we call instinct is no less "scientific" then any other. It is just a question of how we understand, process, and utilize it.

    Personally, I have learned the hard way that I ignore my pre-verbal inclinations at my peril. I see them as my brain recognizing a pattern in the combined input of my five senses and past experiences being converted to physical sensation in order to inform my choices. I believe that system is simply more primitive than the verbal brain, so in some ways less accurate, but in others it is much more honed, and it has the added benefit of having access to a much greater amount of input in the form of non-conscious data, whereas reasoned thought is limited to that which you can verbalize within the confines of the situation at hand.

  2. Michael-Forest M.

    If it comes/grows from experience or can be trained, then it is the 'internalized knowledge' sort of instinct. If it's something that small children are at least as good as adults at (such as knowing when they're hungry), then it's not.

  3. Marie Meservy

    You know, it's really hard to tell what is what when you're in your 20s and beyond. I for one am very far removed from the time I "learned" my internalized knowledge. I don't think I can say I was "born with" this and "learned" that really early on. +Michael-Forest M. and +Catherine Simmons – do you perceive a difference in your mind?

  4. Jeremy Foote

    I definitely agree that there is a lot of wisdom and knowledge passed on to us through our genes, our "instincts", etc, but I am worried about the tendency to prioritize this type of knowledge often comes along with an anti-scientific attitude.

    The fact is, for the types of questions that science can answer, scientific thinking is the best way to answer those questions – things like "is drug X effective?". Ignoring science when it is in its realm leads to things like the anti-vaccine folks, etc.

    Now, I believe that the most important questions in life can't be answered by science – "How do I live a good life?", "Is there a purpose to life?", etc. and here instinct has its place.

  5. Catherine Simmons

    'internalized knowledge' becomes 'instinctive', i.e. is like instinct' but is not instinct. This internalized knowledge is attained by repetitive conditioning to create a habitual action. True instinct is innate i.e. you're born with it 🙂

  6. Sophie Wrobel

    +Jeremy Foote in many things, I'd agree. It got us out of the church-overlord-abuse era. What I'm wondering, though, is why we as a species explicitly ignore instinct ( +Michael-Forest M. 's distinction becomes crucial here – internalized knowledge should still be processed supplemented by enlightenment-style thinking; only instinct is of interest here), and how human instinct actually works.

  7. Sophie Wrobel

    +Michael-Forest M. Very true. I'd suggest the following as a rule of thumb: Internalized knowledge usually 'rings a bell' – things that jog up childhood memories, for example. Those need to be carefully thought through. Instinct has no former association.

  8. Michael-Forest M.

    I think it may be useful to distinguish between biological impulse and internalized knowledge. The word 'instinct' can refer to either of these, though they represent two very different things. Most competitive athletes strive rigorously to attain the latter sort of 'instinct', as it represents the pinnacle of skill. We do not always understand the reasons behind our internalized knowledge (which may often pass for 'wisdom' when it governs an awareness of reality) but that is not to say that there are not specific reasonings behind them. This should not be taken to mean, however, that every impulse (which may sometimes be referred to as 'instinct') is paired with reason or wisdom. The trick is understanding the difference, I think.

  9. Gideon Rosenblatt

    I'm with you, +Sophie Wrobel. One of the things I really worked with my staff on, in the organization I used to run, was learning to trust our instincts. I found that people were less able to go there when I called it "intuition" versus "instincts." Even better was "guts" as in going with your gut.

  10. Sophie Wrobel

    +Marie Meservy It's called 'diaper-free' – there's a nice book on it by Ingrid Bauer if you're curious about her collected experiences. In a nutshell, mother (or father) and child spend the first few weeks of the child's life getting to know each other, in which the mother develops a good feeling for when the child needs to go (among other things). After that, it's just a matter of going whenever the child needs to go, and planning trips /feeding/sleeping around that. Small children can hold their pee for a minute or two. 🙂

    I started on recommendation of our midwife, as my daughter is allergic to practically every diaper on the market and every pair of 'überhose' (don't know the translation, sorry) except one – the simple italian cloth diaper, which is more of a decoration than a diaper since everything outside the diaper gets wet anyway. The first month was rough, but now I know what to look for (she starts breathing quickly, gives a short cry, and starts kicking to tell me when she needs to go). She has so few accidents per day now that it's actually very pleasant.

  11. Catherine Simmons

    But Jeremy that would suppose that the "data" we obtain from our instincts and emotions is invalid…enlightenment is when we take all our observations from whatever source and view them objectively. Just because something is "logical" under the defined scientific views of the day, doesn't make it a definitive truth.

  12. Jeremy Foote

    I don't know – I would say that the great achievement of the Enlightenment is the willingness to put reason/data ahead of instinct/emotion.

  13. Catherine Simmons

    Great post 🙂
    We, and the universe, are all connected..it's the separateness that is the illusion..our ancestors have know this for centuries.


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