Mommy Instinct FAIL

When it comes to motherhood, “trust your instincts” is many people’s mantra. Is she sick or just ate too much sugar? Trust your instincts. Time to potty train? Go with your gut. As if there was a secret glowing light inside each of us that had the answer to every parenting question, and could save us from our bumbling selves.

I read stories about moms and dads who “just knew” their child wasn’t safe at daycare and turned around to pick her up just in time to rush her to the hospital. And, I’ve experienced what I thought must be “mommy instinct” a time or two. My newborn’s cry erupted at 4AM and it was like some kind of internal shock jolted me right out of bed, and when she was older, I remember one day turning around just in time to lunge and catch her dangling off the top edge of the jungle gym. But, all these mom feats are not equal, according to scientists. A lot of the things we call instinct are not.

I asked my own mom what she thought “mommy instinct” actually was and she said, “It’s some idea about your kid that just comes naturally without thinking,” which makes sense, except for scientists, there’s a lot of brain activity that falls into the category of “without thinking.” Studies show mothers and fathers have different brain activity than non-parents; a mother’s brain waves are different when gazing at her own baby versus other babies, and different still when her own baby was crying versus smiling. But when you’re talking specifics, things get messy.

We, of course, have reflexes that startle us at sudden noises and make us rip our hand away from a hot pan. And some acts you might call intuitions, where the brain recognizes a trend or pattern in a split second. My impulse to dive under the monkey bars just in time to save my kid from head trauma is one example. There are also common sense shortcuts and probably other unconscious brain tricks that we use every day instead of deliberate thinking, which can be too slow at times. Our secret light inside is not one thing, but a half dozen pathways of the brain that make our perceptions, ideas, and decisions happen.

As for true instincts, the same thing that spiders use to spin their webs or baby birds use to fly, humans may or many not have them. It’s hard to tell. Instincts are supposed to be universal, something that every member of a species automatically knows how to do. But, it’s hard to argue that anything in human behavior is not learned since all humans absorb a tremendous amount of cultural knowledge starting at birth. One woman raising a child in India may have an almost reflexive impulse to jerk her child away from bathing in dirty water but where I grew up in the American South, we waded around in the murky lake all summer long. We moms may have hormone-fueled drives to keep our infant safe, but they play out differently in every person.

“’s hard to argue that anything in human behavior is not learned since all humans absorb a tremendous amount of cultural knowledge starting at birth”

Scientists treat the idea of human instinct with skepticism. In the 1950’s, Margaret Mead, a staple anthropologist in high school textbooks, argued that all human behavior, even mother-infant bonding, is a product of social interaction and therefore not instinct. All decisions, even intuitions, are just recall of learned information, and not some kind of internal compass common to all humans. Mead’s mentor Franz Boas, an anthropologist and equal rights activist working in the early 1900s, argued that culture “sets people free from their nature” as Matt Ridley writes in his book Nature via Nurture as if nature were the inconvenient tie that binds us to a primitive past.

But, most modern anthropologists make room for culture and instincts, nature and nurture. “Nature cannot be compartmentalized from nurture, yet something about human imagination predisposes us to dichotomize the world that way,” says the esteemed anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book Mother Nature. Down to the level of genetics, it is now known that genes mean nothing without triggers like hormones, stress, or even diet to express them. In the same way, our mother instincts, intuitions, or reflexes are nothing without the rest of human biology and civilization.

As if that weren’t enough to deflate mommy instinct, our catchall word for all these undercover brain activities, add the fact that many of our unconscious brain judgments are often wrong. Nobel Prize winning scientists Daniel Kahneman described many of our brain biases, mental shortcuts that include things like stereotyping and racism. If we see a car accident, we’re more likely to fear car accidents in the following days, even though the chance of having one has not changed. If someone tells us that apples cause cancer, we are less likely to buy them, even if the claim is publicly disproven.

And, of course, intuition is relative. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci says, “One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court…people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else.” Experience and knowledge underlie good intuition. Which means that the instincts of third and fourth mothers are the only ones we should really be trusting.

Yet, when it comes to parenthood, we revere mommy instinct like it’s every mom’s parenting panacea. In my neighborhood in Santa Monica, CA, I hear it all the time: “It was an instinct: I just cut dairy from her diet, and it helped!” and “I don’t know what to do about little Dex’s tantrums — just trust your instincts I guess.” Maybe most parents don’t mean, “trust your instincts” literally, but then again some do. One of my girlfriends even wanted to try an alternative vaccine schedule for her child because “it just doesn’t seem natural for them to get so many at once,” giving her internal intuition more weight than 50 years of modern medicine.

Pediatricians and celebrities have joined in. Anti-vax doctor Jay Gordon, whose office is walking distance to my house, claims, “No one knows your child better than you do.” Another anti-vax sympathetic doctor down the street, Emily Dashiell, claims to “support the healing power of nature,” which for her includes entertaining alternative treatments for parents who just don’t feel right about what modern medicine prescribes. Oprah devoted several episodes of her talk show to women who have met dire consequences for not following their intuition. Last year, the Lifetime movie A Mother’s Instinct follows a mother whose son is kidnapped, and she immediately suspects the skeezy neighbor so instead of waiting for the police to gather evidence, she kidnaps and tortures him.

In Santa Monica, we’ve made a culture of worshiping the intuitive and the “natural.” More than half the moms I meet keep strictly organic households, the way our ancestors supposedly ate, adorn their child with amber teething necklaces, nature’s anesthetic, and buy mostly wooden toys, although it’s still unclear whether any of these activities have proven health benefits. About 6 out of 15 families in our infant Mommy and Me group discussed trying an alternative vaccine schedule and one woman refuses to vaccinate her child altogether. She is also vegan, practices co-sleeping, eats only organic foods, and uses only biodegradable diapers.

Apart from the obligatory herd-of-sheep comment, I wonder, mommies: what about the rest of human nature? Human beings rely heavily on reasoning and cultural wisdom, including science and other verified knowledge, to make decisions. Actually, it’s a hallmark of our species. No other species is as social as we are and we also have the largest cerebral cortex of any mammal, making room for all the stuff we have learned and passed on. It is just as natural to look at evidence to make a decision as it is to “trust your instincts,” in fact it may be unnatural not to do so. And, frankly, weird to rely so heavily on instincts for such an important job as parenting, seeing as we regularly jettison them for other basic decisions like which foods to buy at the grocery store.

“It is just as natural to look at evidence to make a decision as it is to “trust your instincts,” in fact it may be unnatural not to do so.”

I don’t mean to put more pressure on mommies and daddies to think through every little decision. I’ve stood in the cereal aisle paralyzed by the choice of which brand of corn flakes to buy, only to just grab one at random. Studies show that people who are overwhelmed by brain-demanding tasks are more likely to give in to their impulses.

But, with some decisions, it’s essential to ditch the group and recognize all your human brainpower. Vaccination comes to mind. It doesn’t feel natural to stick a needle in your kid’s arm and watch them scream cry all the way out the pediatrician’s office and then go do it again in three months. But, the chance your child will be harmed by a vaccination is the same as them having a life-threatening strawberry allergy. Our instincts clearly need help sometimes. Just like it doesn’t feel natural to spend 5 hours flying thirty thousand feet in the air in a big aluminum can, yet we all do it anyway because it’s important we get to grandma’s funeral. We rise above our primal fears because we know the facts: flying in a commercial aircraft is much safer than driving.

The truth is, the idea of mommy instinct probably helps us get through the tough time of having young kids; our babies need so much help growing up that it’s daunting sometimes. But a line must be drawn. Instincts are just instincts. We should be proud to use every resource we have to raise good kids in this ever more complex world.

Casey Rentz is a science writer whose essays have appeared in New Scientist, Scientific American,, The Guardian, and Best Science Writing Online book series. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kiddos. Find her at Follow her at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

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