Do Humans Have Instincts? If So, Can They Help Us?
Do humans have instincts? This is a very important question. An equally important question is: if they exist, how do they affect our lives?
Sunday was a beautiful sunny day in our area, so my wife and I went for a walk/hike, part of which was through parkland. There were a great many people out, enjoying one of the first days this month that felt like it had the promise of spring. We were struck by the number of people who were out with their dogs. In a good number of cases, people had two or even three dogs accompanying them! The dogs seemed just as delighted as their owners to be out in the sun, if not more so!
This led me to reflect on why it is that so many people love pets like dogs. Some people would suggest that it’s because we project human characteristics and attitudes onto them, and of course, that’s often true. Yet, I think that there’s an even more fundamental characteristic of dogs that we love.
Dogs are a great deal more straightforward and down to earth than humans often are. Dogs very often show us what they’re feeling and what their reactions are in a very direct way. A dog’s motivations and desires are often very plain to see. To sum it up: dogs show us a grounded, embodied instinctual life, and we love them for it.
Near to Both Body and Instinct
This love we have for the straightforward, earthy simplicity of dogs is a reflection of something we desire in our own lives. We yearn for life that is intimately connected with our bodies, and that is rooted in our most fundamental instinctual drives.
At one point psychology wasn’t at all clear that there were human instincts. For instance, in the 1950s, humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that humans no longer have instincts because we have the ability to override them in certain situations. However, more recently, psychologists have tended to view instincts as “the innate part of behavior that emerges without any training or education in humans”, as U. Pittsburgh’s Amanda Spink wrote in 2010, asserting also that behaviors such as cooperation, sexual behavior, and child rearing are rooted in instinct. This latter view has pretty much always been held by Jungians.
Most of us tend to feel that we have instincts, even if we feel quite far away from them. For instance, we sense in dogs the desire to be social, and on some level we recognize that we humans share with dogs an instinctual desire to be social and to interact with others.
Yet we live in a world today that seems incredibly fast-paced and driven forward by technology, through unrelenting change. It can easily seem that our priorities in life are driven by anything but our most basic instincts. Do humans have instincts? And, if so, how do we get in touch with the instinctual layer of ourselves, to know what it is that we most basically want?
Denying Our Instinct
It can be easy in the twenty-first century to live in a manner that pays no heed to instinct. We live in an environment that bears very little resemblance to that in which early humans lived. Artificial light, computers and other technologies allow us to live in a way that is often completely disconnected from the rhythms of nature. The small social groupings that were a fundamental part of human life as it originally was have given way to vast metropolises that are dominated by our machines, and where social contact can be very limited. There are many ways in which we can feel very disconnected from the kind of instinctual life we observe in our dogs!
In light of all this, it is possible to answer the question “Do humans have instincts?” with a simple “No.” In a world like ours, we can pretend that our instinctual roots don’t exist, that we don’t need to pay any attention to our natural body rhythms, that we don’t need meaningful social connection nor need to feel grounded in a place we can really call home, and that our needs for love and intimacy don’t matter. We can “get away” with all this, and perhaps with enough distractions we can continue to function. Yet we will be completely disconnected from who we most fundamentally are. Needless to say, our journey to wholeness will have been stopped in its tracks.
Living in Our Instinct
On the other, getting nearer to our instincts can bring us closer to contact with who we really are. In many cases, anxiety and depression can be the price that we pay for ignoring our instinctual needs for good social connection, for rootedness, and for a life of balance that respects our natural rhythms.
Getting in touch with our instinctual selves requires paying careful attention to ourselves, to both our feeling reactions to experiences in our lives, and to what is going on in our body. Often we can learn a great deal about our instincts by watching the ways in which we experience pain and discomfort in our bodies, and what that might be telling us. To use a common example, if someone is experiencing stomach pain and upset on a regular basis, that person might want to check out the sources of stress in his or her life and how that might relate to overwork or to stressful relationships.
Effective /a-midlife-transition, built around a therapeutic relationship of trust, affirmation and support can greatly assist in listening to what instinct has to say to us about our personal journey.