Instinctive behaviours.

We see instinct as common across all species including man, so why is so little known about it.

There was an item seen on the BBC Capital website.  It was an article about intuition:

Trusting your gut: Smart management or a fool’s errand?

by Eric Barton*

Photographer Mindy Véissid woke up one winter morning in 2010 with a simple idea: dogs running in the snow.

“That’s all I had,” she recalled.

The Manhattan resident followed her gut and went across town to Central Park. There, Véissid found three dogs jumping around in a couple of inches of new snow covering the famed park’s Great Lawn. She plopped down in the field and waited. That’s when the dogs headed right for her. She snapped off a shot just before they barrelled over her.

The picture she took that morning, of happy-looking pups charging through a cloud of snow with the New York City skyline behind them, has become one of Véissid’s calling cards, maybe her most recognisable shot. It’s a photo she would have missed if she had not trusted her gut.

“What I realised is that if I follow my heart, if I follow my feelings, I get good photographs,” Véissid said. “We try to control everything in our lives, and sometimes you have to let go.”

It wasn’t long ago that decision-by-intuition would have been regarded as little more than magical thinking or a try at luck. But research has changed that and intuition has been embraced as a key component to business decision making.

There is, however, an inherent danger to it, and blindly following your gut can be worse than ignoring it altogether. For managers, that means learning how to trust your own instincts and encouraging employees to do the same. But it also means learning to recognise when careful planning trumps sudden inspiration.

Perhaps the thing that most changed the way businesses think about inspiration was a 2008 study co-authored by Gerard Hodgkinson, professor at Leeds University Business School in the United Kingdom. Hodgkinson found that intuition can be beneficial in specific circumstances. First, it’s best to rely on a gut feeling when you need to make a quick decision. Second, and this is the important part, trust your intuition only when you have extensive knowledge on the subject. In other words, the best intuition is pulled from a well of deep knowledge and expertise.

“A lot of people think intuition is general purpose, but intuition is actually domain specific,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. “Intuition is the result of your subconscious brain picking up on clues and hints and calculating the situation for you, and that’s based solely on experience.”

(The rest of the story may be read here.)

Wrong to republish the whole piece, however I do want to republish the closing paragraphs as they are so relevant to today’s post.

Western cultures began to embrace intuition only recently, Pigliucci said, while research suggests Southeast Asian countries have long given credit to gut feelings being a good guide to decision making. Eastern managers, for instance, are more likely to rely on hunches and give them credit for successes afterward.

After photographer Véissid learned to rely on her gut feelings, she wanted to teach others how to do it. Her class, the Art of Intuitive Photography, teaches the photography basics, but her instruction is more about following hunches.

“You can get a good photograph and it will be technically correct,” she said. “But if you follow your heart, you can take photos that can be wonderful.”

Follow BBC Capital on Twitter @BBC_Capital or follow us and join the conversation about this or any other Capital story on Facebook: BBC Capital on Facebook.


* Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

To my mind, what Eric Barton has written about is not instinctive.  That is if one believes that instinct is something that is ‘hard-wired’, so to speak, into our psyche at birth, a function of our genetic heritage.

When one reflects on the start of life, ergo for all warm-blooded species that are the result of a successful copulation between the two genders of that species, then one realises that there is little functioning at birth beyond those bodily functions vital to that new life.

But if we mean by instinctive those behaviours that are subconsciously acted out while the mind is engaged on other mental processes, then that’s different.

Read that last opening paragraph again [my emphasis]:

“A lot of people think intuition is general purpose, but intuition is actually domain specific,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. “Intuition is the result of your subconscious brain picking up on clues and hints and calculating the situation for you, and that’s based solely on experience.

Think of when we drive a car how much of what we are doing in the ‘hand-eye’ department is being managed by our subconscious brain.  Think about the way we use a language, especially the language of our birth country.  One will immediately recognise that the brain is on auto-pilot.  Yet we were born unable to speak, or to drive a car!

Coincidentally, over at Patrice Ayme’s blog there was a post published yesterday on the same theme.  It was called Instinct is Fast Learning.  Here’s an extract:




Abstract: “Innate Knowledge” is a stupid idea. The truth is the exact opposite: KNOWLEDGE IS EVERYWHERE, OUT THERE.Knowledge is the opposite of innate. This insight has tremendous consequences on our entire prehension of the world.

(It will not escape the cognoscenti that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were partisans of innateness. And that believing in the superiority of inheritance is a necessary condition for racism, fascism, slavery, and hereditary plutocracy as fairness. That makes the likes of Chomsky and Dawkins self contradictory)

Subjective time slows down in smaller brains.

Fastest Wings, Fastest Brains. Anna Hummingbird California
Fastest Wings, Fastest Brains.  Anna Hummingbird California

Those wings go at 100 Hertz, four time the human perception limit.

Thus time is relative; just as light-clock time slows down in a fast reference frame, or in a heavy gravitational field, neurological timeslows down in a small neurology.

(Interestingly, the deepest reason for the slowing of time… boils down to the same in the Relativity case as in the Neurological one! It’s all about energy.)

A lot of ideas on instinct came from studying insects: insects seem to know all, without having studied anything. However, if insect time flows slowly, insects actually have time to learn.

And that’s rendered easier by having brains adapted to their environment. If they have only a few tricks to learn, and what looks like ten seconds for us is an hour for them, no wonder they learn lots. Thus slow in small explains how “instinct” works.

Hence behaviors one describes as “instinctive” are just fast studies. A lot of the silliness about “genes” is thus dispelled, and the mind comes on top.

It’s an essay that deserves the full reading.  This is how it closes:


Instinct As Fast Learning solves the nature-nurture problem. It also shows something else, even more important. It shows that the force of nature makes not just the force, but even the very geometry, of our minds.

(The construction of neuromorphology itself being forced by feedback from nature.)

The minds of sentient species, from bees to hummingbirds, are exquisitely tuned to be programmed by the (part of) nature they are made to respond to, all the way to the speed of time they need.

If we kill the environment, we kill out instruction set. The usual reason given to save the environment is that we would not want our descendants to live in a bad world. But what we see now is that a poor world gives poor minds, and that even time may go askew. Another, deeper than ever, reason to be a fanatical ecologist. Nature is not just our temple. Nature is where, and how, time itself is built, one neurological impulse at a time.


Patrice Ayme

On Monday, I have a sequel to this post.  It’s an insight into the conscious and unconscious skills that come from flying a glider, or sailplane in American speak!  Plus something that could just possibly be the key to mankind having a long-term sustainable future on this planet: The Power of Thinking.

But back to today.

You will recall that the item from the BBC website opened with photographer Mindy Véissid waking up one winter morning in 2010 with a simple idea: dogs running in the snow.  Too good not to miss for a blog called Learning from Dogs.

Mindy’s website is here and do go across there and browse.  You will quickly discover, for example:

we teach small sized group and private digital photography classes and workshops in fun locations throughout nyc, focusing on how to use your camera, how intuition can help guide you to images, and compositional improvement

So having given Mindy that small, but well-deserved, plug, I don’t feel too bad closing today with Mindy’s picture of those dogs running in the snow.

Picture by Mindy Veissid Photography
Picture by Mindy Veissid Photography

19 thoughts on “Instinctive behaviours.

  1. We are born with instincts and our Animal Kingdom follow them daily… We no longer seem to connect with our instincts as much as we should…. relying on external information rather than those little gut feelings that if we were honest all still have, but often we shrug them off as silly thoughts…
    It may be we do not need them as much in our modern day world than say if we needed to rely upon them to survive out in nature… Many have detached from those inner thoughts and gut instincts which is a shame.. Because once we learn to embrace them and ‘Feel’ with our senses, we then connect back to those instincts, we then see how we are given help along the way in the form of ‘Signs’ .. Once we tap into this area again we begin to see how connected we really are…

    Love that photo of the Dogs in the snow by the way too….

    Thank you for your visit also Paul
    Enjoy your weekend


    1. As always, Sue, thank you for your comment. However, a question: When you write that we are born with instincts, as opposed to developing instincts from learning, can you describe such instincts?


      1. One, a Baby will jump when hearing a loud noise!.. fight or flight instincts, If you frighten a child, he/she doesn’t have to learn how to squeal! or run away that’s one…

        Other instincts are our abilities to sense, as I child I would sense and see things around others could not.. Many children have imaginary play mates, As adults we pooh pooh this idea telling children this is nonsense and so we squash these instincts… If developed we would see how the sixth sense is inherent within all of us, all be in some more than others…
        Imagination in children is a wonderful gift… Its a great shame that the TV was invented really, for we plonk children, ( and I was no different when my own young children grew ) in front of the tv and they become transfixed…
        And I can see I could waffle on for ever but I am digressing,
        As children we have instincts, but in our world of modern day living we no longer need them,..
        Our animals in the wild rely upon their instincts to eat and hunt….
        The Aboriginal tribes in Australia the true bushmen and women, know all about these instincts, and are still in tune with nature, and the animals,
        you should read an excellent book called the Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan. which whether you believe its fiction or fact challenges us to look at the Aboriginals ability to have communicative powers with Nature, and remarkable healing capabilities using natures gift and energy…

        See I Rambled , but these have instincts born into them which are not necessarily taught but inherited and felt when put into practice on a daily basis..

        We for the most part no longer have these instincts because we have no use for them..


      2. Sue, what a fabulous response. I’m using a tablet in bed to write this! Miss a proper keyboard (and, yes, showing my age!) So will reply in the detail your response deserves later on today.

        And must wake my gorgeous Jeannie and the three dogs on the bed!


      3. OK, sitting in front of a keyboard.

        In essence, I agree that there are some key instincts with us from birth, as with all animals. However, I sense they are much fewer than we imagine. For example, while a very young baby will, I’m sure, respond to a sudden, alarming sound, I’m not sure that the ‘fight or flight’ response is genetic. My sense is that the young baby, or young animal, will learn that from its parental response.

        So in the general view I find myself in accord with Patrice’s recent essay where he claims, in a much more rigorous manner than I, that most of what we see as instinctive is learnt. (Do go across and read PA’s essay and comment; I know he would be interested in your thoughts.)

        Having not read the Marlo Morgan book, I can’t comment further regarding the Aborigines except to say that I did spend a number of months during 1969 in the Australian bush in relatively close contact with them and wrote a couple of articles about them for the Scandinavian magazine I was freelancing for. As you imply, there is much about the Aborigines, and many other tribes in the world, that we can learn from.


      4. Thank you for the Link Paul, but I am afraid my thoughts are but a Dream-walker’s ramblings..:-) 😉 Wishing you and Jean a wonderful Day and an even better weekend .
        Sue 🙂


    2. Should have known I’d see you here, Sue! 🙂
      I agree our instincts are frayed or dissipated.

      Good article, Paul. I enjoyed this. And like Sue – oh that pic of the dogs in the snow!! 🙂


  2. Sue: I have a daughter who just turned four, and I learned that she learned to fear. And that’s very good.

    It’s well known, from observations of animals that the fight/flight answer is learned. Entire species were exterminated when the animal culture of fearing man was not learned in a timely manner. In wild Africa, where I lived, knowing what animals knew about humans was the essence of safety.

    The same was found recently in the state of Washington, USA, with mountain lions; by shooting wise dominant males, who kept discipline, and instruction about proper behavior relative to humans and human property, mountain lion culture was blown to bits(it’s all over the latest issue of AAAS Science magazine).

    Thus opening a massive hunting program of mountain lion hunting, incidents were actually augmented, and mayhem ensued (ignorant teenage lions took over).


    1. Had to look it up but Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote seems an apt reply to your thank-you comment. Namely: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” And there’s a hell of a lot of darkness about just now! So your flame is valuable; to the extreme.


  3. A few years ago my partner wondered if I would have a dog- my reply was no but if I had to it would be small, with attitude- in fact as it happened, just like a dog in a VW Polo advert that was showing at the time: a white terrier that only had the confidence to sing in a Polo. A month later a white terrier [possible mainly Jack Russell] puppy ended up in my life. Her name is Polo. She is not my dog.

    So the years pass and the neighbours Patterdale jumps Polo just over a couple of years ago. By the winter solstice 4 delightful puppies are born. As it happens I ended up keeping 1 – still not my dogs and definitely my partners.

    That’s the back story to a blog I was planning to write for ages about the wonders of Polo’s motherhood. Polo grew up with an ageing black lab and a stupid spaniel and to my knowledge no education in motherhood. During her pregnancy she started to bury more rabbit carcases [she lives with me in the woods to keep the rabbits from eating the blueberries] . During pregnancy puppies bones harden quite late and it was at this point those buried bunny skeletons were dug up and consumed.

    Come the birth a nest was made [the owner domesticated to attend to her needs!] and without any previous knowledge Polo removed the umbilical cord and embryonic sac knowing exactly when superfluous tissue ended and puppy began. She was the perfect mother.

    Around the 12 week point the puppies were found homes and one was kept [Spot] at that moment Polo’s mothering instinct vanished even though one puppies remained.

    So how does a 3 year old dog know how to be a great mum? Instinct apparently, so I asked around biologists I knew and got the usual statements I learnt in my youth. Hormones: chemical messengers.

    Think of hormones and adrenalin comes to mind- we get a fright and burst of super charging. What we don’t get is complex instructions. Breast feeding for mums and child generates a hormone response to enhance bonding which is understandable but is a single instruction. What Polo was instructed to do when she needed calcium was to dig up a store but prior to then she had taken up a new practise of burying the bones: prior to pregnancy the littered around [or became ‘toys’, complete with bunny ears and feet!].

    We are electro-chemical entities- are brains are controlled by chemicals and electro impulses with hormones being produced at appropriate times that trigger what appear to be intelligent complex behaviour. This pre-programmed intelligence is the result of many thousands of years of evolution: inherited intelligence if you like. Interestingly the Alien franchise of movies has the hybrid human/alien monsters as having ancestral memories and skills. So how much of human behaviour and apparent intelligence instinctive?

    One of my son’s friends when he was about 12 was neglected by his single mum- not to a dangerous extreme- but she was more interested in having fun, partying late and getting up around midday. It would appear that natural motherly instincts are very strong but in this case this particular mother had managed to override those impulses. It seems the natural setting for humans is to be peaceful and compassionate: during WW2 Allied soldiers would prefer to shoot above the heads of the enemy which caused a major rethink in training. So for mother to be neglectful and soldiers to be killers it is required to override our instinctive selves and act to reframe our minds.

    We seek to usurp our animal side and to see our logic and will to be our true humanity. With advances in brain science it is revealed our subconscious mind is making decisions for us 9 seconds or so before we think we have the idea. It also means those wants or desires are displayed in body language well before we are aware of it.

    Am I the person I actually thought I was? Is my life decisions things I’ve made or pre programmed chemical software?

    all the best Jules
    [great photo]


    1. Jules, what an absolutely fascinating comment. Thank you for taking the trouble, and time, to write it. Upon reading your comment I was left musing on how complex we human beings are. Almost as soon as one gets to the point (age?) where one thinks one knows oneself, along comes something in life that starts us all over again. As one of the images in tomorrow’s post states in relation to one’s brain: On the left side, there is nothing right and on the right side, there is nothing left! 😉


    2. There are many hormones and neurohormones involved in breast feeding. Still, it’s behavior learned on both sides. And not always successfully. Similarly, as examplified by Jules, the motherly instinct is more a chemical tendency than a fatality. It is (more than) helped by learning.


    1. Mindy, you are most welcome and thank you for your comment. If you fancy sharing more of your photographs or submitting a guest post I would love that, Paul


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