The Power of Instincts
How to unleash the power of your instincts in the right way.
Instincts can be misleading. They might tell you to eat a whole cake because your ancestors, one million years ago, were starving. At the same time, they might save your life in a car accident.
But they’re more than that. They can also install demons into your mind, ruin your life, spot risks and opportunities, multiply your abilities, quickly handle the unexpected. Depending on your approach, they can be your worst enemy or your best ally.
Let’s see exactly why instincts can be an obstacle or a power, and how to make them work for this modern life mostly unknown to them.
What instincts are
Instincts are complex behaviors that, well, are ultimately not that complex. They’re more than simple reflexes, but they don’t require most of our more complex and evolved functions. They are, we could say, quick behavioral patterns.
An integralist psychologist could kill me for using the term “instinct.” That term is supposed to be dead, replaced by propensities, tomes on behavioral plasticity, and brain scans. Luckily, none of those psychologists is in sight today, and I can continue to use the generic and accessible term instinct.
Anyway, that psychologist wouldn’t be wrong, of course, and the reason is that, especially in humans, the line between automatic and conscious — or “programmable” — behaviors is blurred, as it often is the distinction between instincts and other aspects of our psychology, as emotions.
The first important distinction among the many aspects of instincts is between propensity and behavior.
Just look at your temptations. When you were a child, you might have desired to eat chocolate and, if the opportunity was there, you would have eaten all the chocolate at your disposal. Maybe now you have the same temptation, but you eat a modicum quantity or no chocolate at all. With time, you changed your behavior, but the temptation is harder to be neutralized, so maybe you adopted the common strategy of avoiding temptation. Or accepting it and go to Hell. Or send to Hell someone else.
Anyway, propensity too can be changed. With time, having changed my attitude toward chocolate, I’ve come to desire it less. I’d just hope it happened with other temptations.
The point is that you can usually change the behaviors dictated by your instincts and, up to a point, even what triggers those behaviors, maybe indirectly. And the same could be said for the intricate relations with other complex aspects of our mind.
The second fundamental distinction is between innate and learned instincts. The instinct to cry, as a child, is innate. The instinct to give the proper inclination to your skis is learned. And sometimes you “overwrite” your innate instincts to replace them with more effective versions.
We will see further on that a third key distinction applies.
The dark side of instincts
Maybe you’re among those who say that nothing in Nature has a dark side.
Well, nor Wall Street nor candy shops are exactly “natural,” and some instincts have dangerous drawbacks, outside a wild environment.
While we may have some plasticity in our behaviors, we also inherit a giant welcome pack of instincts, and sometimes one life is not enough to change them all. Nor we want to.
That welcome pack was assembled a long time ago. McDonald was not there. Nor professions. Nor Facebook.
We have to upgrade a large part of that software to make it fit our modern needs. And, most of all, we have to overcome short-sighted behaviors to reach long-term goals. Or to fit our values.
Yes, values, for example. A complex concept. Because civilization evolved too and our inner and social life changed fast, adding layers to the basic survival. We’ve built individual and social concepts which can empower humans, offering new possibilities, sometimes even putting our purpose beyond our own life.
This kind of world is new to instincts like Walmart would be for a native of a remote island.
So, the main dark aspect of innate instincts is just that they’re usually short-sighted, optimized for a much simpler world, directly connected to survival. Innate instincts are greedy. Is it good for you and your family now? Get it. Does it menace you and your family? Kill it. I’d often wish to adopt that simple strategy, but a lawyer told me it’s not possible. And that strategy also doesn’t help that much in case of writing a book.
One of the greedy ways instincts manifest themselves is the tendency to economy. Unless specific and urgent needs, instincts want to save your battery. Maybe good for your metabolism and life duration, but not that good in case of goals that your instincts don’t understand. You want to graduate, and they prefer the cheaper activity of examining the stains on the ceiling.
Also, those instincts are usually selfish. Your family may be included in their calculations, but that’s because family is an extension of your self, it’s your family. But even about your family, protection instincts may need some tweaks.
Pay attention that those sides of instincts that we could call dark sides nowadays were bright sides when instincts were forged. Instincts are intended for our good. Good intentions, poor execution, we could say.
Finally, being instincts needed as quick responses to the environment, instincts are fast. Much faster than our intellect, for example. Sometimes too fast. Instincts make pretty basic and associative statements. They don’t ask permission, nor make double checks, nor write time logs. A double-edged trait.
Now, if you mix the speed of instincts with their greediness, and consider the exponential consequences of their complex relations with the rest of your mind, you can easily see how those dark sides can trick us, how biases can spring out, how our childhood has still a role in our attitude as adults, why we can’t let instincts run wild and, on the contrary, we often have to do the opposite of what they suggest.
Obvious things here, yet the number of times that we check our smartphone is still probably superior to our abs reps. And that’s the big problem with instincts. They’re less intelligent than us, but smarter.
The upside of instincts
Instincts know a lot of you and your environment. Sometimes, much more than yourself.
That alone is reason enough to give them a chance to be listened.
Instincts have memory and directly communicate with your deep self. If they want to run away, there’s probably a reason. If they want to smile, maybe they want you to have friends.
Instincts have proven to want your survival and to be right in certain conditions. Those conditions are probably much different from your whole current conditions, but before dismissing a tested algorithm, it’s a good idea to know why you should modify or replace it. You should prove them to be wrong. And you may also discover that you can’t.
Instincts are associative, automatic, but exactly for that reason, they can be fast. They can do jobs that you can’t do with your intellect. You can’t swim with your intellect. You use intellect to train your instincts, then let your instincts do the job, under your initiative and control.
Instincts are deeply connected with your primordial energy, with your emotions and your needs. They can channel a massive force, focused and effective. They can also remember you, and your environment, your basic needs. They can give you authenticity and courage.
Also, instincts are a resource when improvisation is needed. When you have to think everything from scratch immediately, situations can overwhelm you. Some instincts, especially if you already master them, can support you in handling new situations.
Finally, instincts can adapt. Instincts know that your environment can change. That you can change. They’re not able to adapt with great intelligence, left to themselves. But you can lead them, if you want. Instincts are designed to give an immediate response, but also to change, to be trained and guided.
Human instincts usually let you have the last saying. It may take a while, but you can reprogram or steer them. They can be a wild or a docile force, according to your will. Or according to the lack of it.
Making your instincts work for you
We all know at least that some instincts can be trained, as it happens with sports.
When I started climbing, my fear of heights prevented me from raising a few feet off the ground. They screamed to get down. I had to show those instincts that it was possible to climb with relative safety. With time, I replaced the instinct to get down with correct and safe instincts of moving up. That’s an extreme example, in my case, but it’s an example of how instincts can work for you, once you understand their reasons, you tell them that another way is possible, you show them your goals, and persist.
How can this be done?
First of all, you have to chose which battles to fight. If you’re wired the wrong way, all of your being, and your life, will resist changing. You need a lot of energy, to get small changes. So, you need goodwill and to focus your battles. Not all of your instincts need to change, and you can’t change all of them anyway.
Then, like an advanced swimmer, you have to acknowledge what’s wrong with an instinct, and what’s its proper handling, or replacement. You have to understand and analyze. Instincts are there exactly because you don’t know better.
But replacing instincts, or building other instincts in their place, needs practice. Knowledge by itself won’t make you swim. You need trials and errors. You need a hard-wired memory. You need to consolidate a new habit, and maybe even challenge your capabilities. You need to try and repeat.
Still, two environments will resist change or, on the contrary, can help change. Your will alone is not enough, without their support.
One of the two is the inner environment; your mind. You need motivation, because instincts resist changing. You need to visualize specific goals. You need to add the right emotions to the mix. Or the help of other instincts.
The other one is everything else, outside. Your environment too, will resist change, or tempt you. Instead, you want the environment to work for you. Remove distractions and the wrong temptations. Replace them with an inspirational environment. Connect with people who can encourage the right change. You need help. You may need hacks, to overcome too high barriers. Sometimes you need the presence of some elements, sometimes the absence of them. The more your environment helps you, the more your effort will let you reach a different attitude.
At the end of the day, it’s still up to you, but when you get to the next level, you’ll have more tools to change even more yourself and your environment. It’s a process in which any step supports the next one. Any result helps to reach the other. Your effort is still required, but you’re in a better position. You need to reach a different state, from which the perspective will be different, and there will be synergy between your capabilities. It’s possible to make your instincts change, and when they change, they will be an improved ground for the rest of your growth.
Everything is connected, in your mind. When you train your instincts, you get help and energies for other steps. Your attitude changes your behavior, but your behavior changes your attitude too. Also, your attitude will help to change your environment, and the changed environment will help change yourself.
Choose your battles. Understand. Small steps. Effort. Consistency. Progression.
Then, at some point, you may realize that further opportunity is there. It’s the third distinction between instincts that we mentioned before.
Instincts are born automatic. But they can be different.
Tennis players may have, at the beginning, difficulties in coordinating their will to send the ball in a specific part of the opponent field. They need a lot of attempts. They need practice. At some point, they start to be able to react to the opponent moves, and even to make correct moves.
Still, the overall game is not in their control. But, at the next level of expertise, the moves become tools that they willingly pick inside a tactic, or even a strategy. Even if instincts move fast, tennis players control them according to structured and intelligent layers which set goals, manage energies, adapt to the adversary.
You can put your awareness in your instincts, and connect them with your will. You do that by relentlessly observing your reactions, training your behavior, practicing, and reaching a state where you’re able to lead your instincts while letting them work fast. You don’t need to slow them to control them. You control them at their speed.
Instincts are a wild force, but they are mechanic and with short sight, until you master them, and keep mastering them. At that point, they can be intentional instincts. And they become the power that you can and should unleash.