As I stated in my first posting MMR ignites the ego, feelings come much faster than thoughts, which gives rise to the notions of intuition and instinct.
It has been demonstrated that humans have little to no true instincts (I would contend none) and those we do have constitute more of a reflex than instinct, as well as dissolve following infancy. An instinct is a compelling force that cannot be overidden. A reflex is a response to a stimulus that occurs without conscious thought. A reflex, however, does not constitute a behavior.
There are myriad examples of instinctual behaviors throughout the animal kingdom. Bears are compelled to hibernate in the coldest months. Newborn sea turtles make their way directly to the ocean with no guidance whatsoever. Spiders spin silk to meet a variety of needs without ever having been taught the applications. Imprinting of very young animals is so absolute in its sense of species identification that a duck can take a dog to be its parent. Many four-legged animals are compelled to get up and walk almost immediately after birth. This occurs in many species even before their eyes open. Humans take anywhere from 10-18 months, typically, to walk and do so with continuous visual cues and loads of encouragement.
Humans are born with a series of innate reflexes, this is true. Particular responses to specific triggers. Reflexes such as rooting and suckling, for example, which is a survival cluster of reflexes that help us find and latch on to a nipple for food. Others are the moro reflex and the righting reflex. But many of these reflexes don’t evolve with us and dissipate by the time we are walking. But I contend that from the end of infancy forward, we have no behaviors that are performed without being based on prior experience – that come without education, training or learning – nor that cannot be overridden. The very definition of an instinct. Sea turtles cannot override seeking the ocean immediately following birth. Salmon cannot override the arduous, jumping journey upstream to reproduce. There is no behavior a human cannot consciously override. The physiological responses that are forced within us remain merely reflexes. Pressure induced deep tendon reflexes, chemoreceptor and baroreceptor induced diaphragmatic reflexes, and along those lines – the mammalian diving reflex. A reflex which slows the heart rate and constricts blood flow to the extremities when very cold water hits the face. Even this reflex declines with adulthood, though.
Okay, so we have reflexes intact, but then what about our “gut” instinct? That’s an instinct, right? I mean, how else can you explain why we know what we know based on very little input or exposure sometimes? Well, first, even our gut does not compel us to behave in a way that we cannot override, except perhaps for vomiting (which is still a reflex to rid the gut of noxious contents). And second, neither reflexes nor instincts are feelings. They are not even thoughts. What we commonly refer to as our gut instinct, or perhaps even our sixth sense, represents both – feelings first, then thoughts – and nothing more. The fact is that we have had more exposure than we may think, even when it comes to people we’ve only just met or situations we are encountering for the first time.
What we commonly refer to as our “gut,” was argued by Abraham Maslow as amounting to a strong drive (an urge to attain a goal or satisfy a need). Modern neuroscientists might term it the physical, mental and/or emotional effect of heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts, if you will, that allow for rapid judgment and solutions based on previous experience and exposure. Heuristics encompass both emotional response and memory recall. Take being able to “read” someone, for example, or love at first sight. Love at first sight is emotional, it’s an affinity for another’s particular mannerisms and characteristics based on stored knowledge that resulted in likes and dislikes, and is usually then combined with lust (or other termable sexual element). Merely a chemically induced sensation of connection (a feeling). Those feelings come from recall of what we know that we like, whether we were actually exposed to it or have merely formulated it in our minds. Thereby, lending proof to the still over-romanticized hyperbole of “I just knew.” The fact is, yes, you did know. You made a rapid, yet conscious decision, or in other words – you employed heuristics.
But who’s to say definitively? Maybe obsession and stalking are human instincts and not pathologies, after all. Or maybe I’m just upset because I’ve come to the conclusion that MY guts have shit for brains (thank you, John Cusack).
The same principle applies to decision-making. How do we make decisions based on the inference, “go with your gut,” when we find ourselves in seemingly novel situations, or even when we simply must act rapidly? Still heuristics. You may employ one of the types of heuristics introduced by psychologists Tversky and Kahneman in the 1970s. For example, the availability heuristic relies on immediate examples; a number of similar or related – though perhaps not exact – events or situations that may spring to mind. Or you may employ the representativeness heuristic, which is where you compare the current situation to a template that already exists in your mind and find resemblance. The template is a set of existing ideas stemming from what you have adopted as the most relevant or typical example of something. One prominent example of the representativeness heuristic is commonly called stereotyping.
And with that, you can see that while heuristics are essential when we don’t have the time or resources to collect and analyze all the information available to us before making a choice, they can also lead us to errors and biases. Much of our justice system is based on the representativeness heuristic, but we call it case law for short. Think about it!
Don’t ask me to explain psychics. I don’t know.
Anyway, despite all my arguing against instinct and by proxy intuition and the like, I do have this one opposing concept that lingers… When our bodies are lacking something, a nutrient for example, are we compelled to seek it out and achieve it even when we don’t know that it exists where we found it? That’s confusing. Let me try an example to highlight the point. When I was young – toddler to school age, say around 1980 – my mother would eat raw potatoes. She developed a sudden liking for them where none had existed before. I would eat them with her because it was fun. The crispness and crunch, and they weren’t disgusting. Plus, it was what mom was doing. It was simple why I was doing it, but why was she? Long story short, soon my mom discovered that she had a significant vitamin B and potassium deficiency. Elements/nutrients that potatoes have in large quantity, though my mother didn’t know that. She didn’t know the nutrition content of a potato then. She was merely compelled to eat them, and trust me – almost uncontrollably so. I can’t find any research suggesting that the body will, in fact, seek out and find what it is lacking, but the story is convincing and I’m always pondering it. It could just be coincidence, sure. Though, at the same time she started with raw potatoes, she started with raw mushrooms, as well. And guess what? She also had a vitamin D deficiency.
Perhaps I should contact some people in university biology departments to get my answer on that one.
Have you been thinking about our justice system as a predominantly collective heuristic? Thanks. Something else that may fascinate you, there are ways to discover what the bases for your heuristic approaches may be. In fact, one discovery method is a strategy employed every day – brainstorming. In your next brainstorming session, record everything that is said or written and marvel at the building blocks of heuristics. Another discovery method is attributable to Sigmund Freud: freewriting (or free association, if verbal). Writers themselves even make reference to the concept. Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Ayn Rand stated, “Words are a lens to focus one’s mind.” Perhaps most poignantly was Joan Didion who posited, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Choose a topic, try some free writing on it, see what surfaces.
NEXT… How awesome art thou kidneys.