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The Normal Mind Instinct

We have found that the mind's chief end is action, of itself, or of its
body. But what are its incentives to action?

We see the very young baby giving evidences of an emotional life, living
in an affective, or feeling environment, leading a pleasure-pain
existence, from the first. He acts as desire indicates. But from the
very moment of his birth he performs actions with which he cannot as yet
have a sense-memory connection, because he is doing them for the first
time. How can he know how to respond to stimuli from the very beginning?

No other possible explanation offers itself than that he is born with
certain tendencies to definite action. These we call instincts--man's
provision to keep him going, as it were, till reason develops. Instincts
are handed down from all the past. Definite tendencies, they are, to
certain specific reflex actions in response to certain sensations. These
responses, from the very beginning of animal life, have been toward
avoiding pain, and toward receiving pleasure. It is as though the
stimulus presses the trigger--instinct--and the muscle responds
instantly with reflex action. This mechanism is the means of protection
and advancement, and takes largely the place of intelligence in all
animal life. It is what makes the baby suck and cry, clutch and pull,
until a sense memory is established. So instinct is really race memory.
We call instinctive those immediate, unthought reactions which are the
same with all mankind.

The pugnacious instinct--the desire to fight--is the natural reaction of
every human being of sane mind to attack. The inner necessity of
avenging is so strong in the child or man of untrained mind or soul that
he acts before he thinks. He strikes back, or shoots, or plots against
his enemies. Only rare development of spirit or the cautious warning of
reason which foresees ill consequences, or a will trained to force
control, can later make the instinct inactive.

Where instinct ends and sense memory, imitation, and desire step in is
difficult to determine. Later in life probably most of what we consider
instinctive action is simply so-called reflex action, depending on sense
memory, action learned so young that it is difficult to distinguish it
from the true reflex action, which is due only to race memory.

James, in his Talk to Teachers, gives us a partial list of the
instincts. Thus:

Fear Ownership Shyness
Love Constructiveness Secretiveness
Curiosity Love of approbation The ambitious impulses:

To this partial list we would add self-preservation, reproduction, etc.

But instincts conflict with each other, and man carries about with him
in babyhood many of them which may have been very useful to his
prehistoric ancestors, but which only complicate things for him. Fear
and curiosity urge opposite lines of conduct. Love of approbation and
shyness are opposed. Love and pugnacity are apt to be at odds. So,
gradually, as intelligence increases, the child refuses to allow such
impulses to lead him to action. When fear-instinct and love-instinct are
at war, reason is provided to come to the rescue.

Instincts are racial tendencies of sensational or emotional states to
determine action.

Instincts are the germs of habit, and when instinct would give rise to a
reaction no longer useful, reason, abetted by new habit formation, in
the normal mind, weakens instinct's force; and the habit is discarded
and the instinct gradually declines.

In prehistoric times when food was scarce, and man had not learned the
art of tilling the soil, hunger forced him to fight for what he got to
eat. As there was often not enough to go around, he maimed or killed
his fellow-man that he might have all he wanted, obeying the instinct to
survive. So, now, the baby instinctively clutches for all that appeals
to him. But an abundance of food for all, or the intelligent realization
that co-operation brings more to the individual than does fighting, and
a developed sense of responsibility toward others; or merely the fear of
the scorn of fellow beings, or the desire to be protected by the love of
his kind; perhaps a genuine love of people, acquired by spiritual
development, puts the primitive habit of food-grabbing into the discard.
Finally, the very instinct of self-preservation may be transformed into
desire to serve others. No better illustration of this can ever be
offered than the sacrifices of the World War.

Next: Memory

Previous: The Normal Mind

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