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Earthgirl's avatar

How much do experts understand about the nature of instinct in animals and in humans?

Asked by Earthgirl (11169 points ) February 29th, 2012

How does it operate? Is there a certain part of the brain it comes from?
For example, how does the memory of an elephant work? How does it map places it has been in its mind and know how to return to those places? Does it work the same as in birds returning to their roosts and other animals that return to the same breeding ground every year?

Do humans have instinctual behavior too?
I was wondering if Xenophobia (fear of outsiders and foreigners), and the fear of those who are just different than we are, is instinctual?
I came to this question because I have that song from South Pacific stuck in my head!! You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught
Is that true? Or is there an element of instinctual fear that needs to be socialized out of us? Is there any sort of “collective memory” in humans? Maybe we need to be taught how not to hate and how not to bully.

Last question-How can I get that damn song out of my head now??

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17 Answers

dabbler's avatar

Fascinating topic and I have no learned answers for most of it… except possibly:
“Last question-How can I get that damn song out of my head now??” You can replace it with something else that will keep your attention. Simply pushing it out of your mind creates a vacuum into which it can easily slide back in.

Looking forward to others’ insights on the main topic!

LostInParadise's avatar

How the brain works remains a great mystery. Neuroscience is a young science and, although it has produced a lot of interesting results, it has a long way to go before all the pieces fall into place. We currently do not know how memories are stored, let alone how they are linked and retrieved.

As to xenophobia, here is my non-expert opinion. Tribalism is natural. It provides a way of sharing resources and providing protection. Racism, nationalism and religious prejudice are all outgrowths of tribalism. I do not mean to justify these attitudes. I do think that we are getting better. The world is getting smaller and more humane. It is only comparatively recently that slavery has been considered wrong. The idea of universal rights extended to all races and to both men and women is very recent in world history. I think that we need to be taught to overcome our tribal impulses and that we will continue to get better at doing so.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I don’t think our technology is up to the task yet. We don’t understand instinct yet. And education may be part of the problem. Instinct is just that, instinct. You can’t think about instinct, it just has to happen. When I was a child, I could water witch. It worked, I know it to be so. I got all my education and I can’t do it now. I lost touch with that connection I used to have. I try, but it’s just not there. (This so sounds like the rant of one of those radical earth people or something. I leave it out there for the heck of it. Tear into it.:) )
Music part: Listen to Your Decision, Alice in Chains. It’ll help.

thorninmud's avatar

The example that boggles my mind is the migration of the Monarch butterfly. Every year, Monarchs east of the Rockies migrate up to 2500 miles to a tiny grove of fir trees in Mexico. But because no individual Monarch lives over a year, every single Monarch on the migration is doing it for the first time. They’re not returning to a place they’ve been before. And yet, they find the way. Where the hell does that come from?

Rousseau, among other humanist philosophers, believed that humans are distinct from animals in that we aren’t governed by instinct, but exercise our free will to choose our behaviors instead. That’s certainly the way it feels to us, on a subjective level, right? We believe that our actions reflect freely-made decisions, and that we are therefor the masters of our destiny. We can change ourselves, whereas animals can’t.

But there’s a growing trend toward strict materialism which sees free will as an illusion. We would all, according to this view, simply be playing out the inevitable consequences of the physical unfolding of the universe. No choices are being made; even the impression of making choices is just an inevitable feature of a determined universe.

Both of these views seem to me to miss the mark. Very social creatures like us have to some extent become less reliant on instinct in favor of a kind of “social mind”, for lack of a better term. In other words, we take our behavioral cues less from our DNA than other animals, and more from the collective understanding of the world that emerges from our shared experience. The resulting synergy of social organization is a kind of “outsourcing” of instinct that allows valuable and complex behaviors to be passed through time outside of our DNA, and permits more rapid adaptation of behaviors to fit circumstances.

So, while there is no doubt a persistent set of instincts encoded in our DNA, maybe the most influential is simply our instinct to seek out the company of each other.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say, “instinct.” Perhaps you mean something like “programming” in the sense that we program a computer? We know that birds and other animals have a sense of direction that is based on a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field. The butterflies that @thorninmud mentions may also be able to navigate that way. If you artificially mess with the magnetic fields, you can screw up these creatures’ ability to navigate.

There is a lot of sophisticated behavior that is encoded in our genes, but it’s not so simple as that. Our genes encode responses to a variety of environmental conditions, so our actual behavior depends on both genes and environment. We can consciously change our environment and change the response of our bodies. Free will is not at all an illusion.

I have personally had a rather dramatic experience of how chemistry influences my thinking at a very specific level. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was quite depressed for a year or so. Thoughts of suicide were constantly with me. I was unable to conceive of myself as a worthwhile human being. I literally could not think that anything I had done or ever would do would be good.

They tried various meds on me, and I don’t remember which one it was now, but within a few days of taking one of them, I recall a dramatic change in my thinking. My brain just about reversed itself. Instead of being unable to think of any worth in myself, I was unable to conceive of how I could have ever thought of killing myself. I remember marveling at the change in my thinking and feeling like I had absolutely nothing to do with those changing thoughts. It was clearly due to the pills I had been taking.

That was really scary. Who the fuck am I if my thoughts can be changed so specifically by the introduction of new chemicals into my blood stream? Will there eventually be pills for liberalism? Pills for fidelity? Pills to become an accountant? To what degree are these patterns of thought supported (or even enforced) by specific brain chemistry patterns?

So is that instinct? My experience was that I could not control the thoughts. They just happened and the way they happened was controlled by the pills I took. Do we have instinctual patterns of thought that can be changed simply by changing brain chemistry?

I believe so. Although I don’t think it is that simple. Yes, my thoughts changed, but another person in a similar situation with a similar brain chemistry would not have exactly the same thoughts I have and would not have the same changes under the influence of the same pills. Small differences matter, and our behavior introduces chaos into the social fabric, which makes it impossible to predict how any individual will respond to any chemical intervention in a very specific way.

Our brains are creative. We are able to move beyond any mental programming because our DNA cannot contain the solutions to all problems. The universe changes and there is no predicting what will happen in the future. Thus we need creativity in order to remain flexible and to be able to deal with unforeseen problems. But every new solution we create also feeds back into our DNA—via mitochondrial DNA—and our successes are remembered and encoded not just in our feeble memories, but also in our more robust RNA and, I’m guessing—eventually—DNA.

In conclusion, I want to make a philosophical comment about this topic. We think of the issue of nature vs nurture; genes vs environment; or instinct vs creativity; and it is the “vs” that is the problem. We do not have a dyadic system here. Rather, we have two pulls in a problem solving system that work together and probably cannot be separated in any meaningful way. It is the nature of our minds that we seek to categorize things and put them into polar systems so that we can understand them. But in this case, that model for understanding is not so useful, or can be quite misleading.

Nature and nurture are probably better understood as a dynamic system—a system where you can really not clearly separate the two. They are different forms of memory; different ways of learning. I think what confuses us is that we think that somehow humans are above nature, instead of part of it. We believe that our ability to think makes us different—transcendent, as if nature cannot think.

Well, I think humans evidence more than a bit of hubris there. Nature probably could be said to think, if we define thought a bit more precisely. If we understand our own thought processes more clearly. Thinking is more than a little tied up with our bodies and our chemistry. Thinking is a chaotic process that is not unlike what happens when random bits of genetic material get thrown together to create new life. A lot of it is shit. But some of it is an amazingly effective adaptation to current conditions. That happens in reproductive processes and that happens in thought processes in a very similar way (albeit much faster).

Esedess's avatar

I think with all the answers you got above. My thoughts are pretty much covered. @wundayatta That’s very interesting (about the meds)!

Of the things not mentioned above, the only other observation I would add, is in the relation between “instinct” and “thought”, and the ratio to which they exist with capacity.

Through my own speculation, I can’t help but notice a pretty much universal pattern where-in, the more helpless and “dumb” a creature is at birth, the slower the transition to it’s ultimate capacity is; and the greater it’s ultimate capacity is as an adult. Now, what do I mean by all that? Let’s look at some examples.

As humans are the best we know in almost all capacities (intelligence, adaptability, survival, communication, dexterity, etc…) I’m setting the bar at us with an ultimate capacity of 100.

Human
° Capacity at Birth: 1 (Born completely helpless and completely clueless. An infant baby can’t walk, support its own head, talk, or think at any level comparable to its adult self.)
° Instincts: Low (eat, poop, cry)
° Progression to Ultimate Capacity: Slow (The average for babies walking is about 12 months old. The average for just understanding about 50 words is 12–18 months old. Conversing lands about 2.5–3 years in, with a vocabulary of just 300 words.)
° Ultimate Capacity: 100 (Math, science, history, gymnastics, etc… etc… etc…x infinity)

Dog
° Capacity at Birth: 6 (Just barely above human infants with the ability to support their own bodies, and barely crawl.)
° Instincts: Low (eat, poop, cry, right itself, seek warmth)
° Progression to Ultimate Capacity: Quick (3–3.5 weeks is the average for mobility, eating solid foods, and understanding training techniques.)
° Ultimate Capacity: 30 (Run, dig, hunt, capacity to understand some words/moods)

Spider
° Capacity at Birth: 13 (Spiders are born very comparable to their adult selves)
° Instincts: Amazing (Born knowing how to walk, hunt, spin webs, hide, etc…)
° Progression to Ultimate Capacity: Almost non-existent (Spiders are born ready, and progress little past what they were at birth)
° Ultimate Capacity: 15 (Control over venom release… IDK??)

Obviously this is just a personal theory… and a very crude one at that. As I’ve not attempted to quantify the matter in any way, nor would I be qualified to, it is theoretical speculation at best. The numbers I gave above are just examples. I don’t really know what the scale would be for capacity, or how you would determine it; but you see my point right? Throughout the entire animal kingdom there’s an uncanny correlation between initial and ultimate capacity. It’s as if one born with more instinct, has a lower ultimate capacity, and vise-versa. Just a thought… It’s always interested me though. I wish someone out there would try to really crunch some numbers on this matter. I’d be very curious to see the resulting graph.
Maybe we should change “slow and steady wins the race” to “the slow and steady race wins”.
Ha~...

Earthgirl's avatar

Esedess Thanks for your observations. The thing that hits me right off is that as far as humans are concerned I learned in biology class that we are born more helpless and less developed than most animals because of our larger brains. If babies were born more developed their craniums would be too large to fit through the birth canal. It’s painful enough for the mother as it is! This biological dilemma leads to a longer infancy period wherein we are more helpless and dependent because we are not yet fully developed enough to walk and be independent.
I always remember reading Jean Aeul’s Clan of the Cave Bear. It may be thought of as a typical Hollywood treatment of cave men but actually Jean Auel did a lot of research into paleolithic culture. She wanted to give a more realistic portrayal of prehistoric man. The premise of the story is that a Cro-Magnon human could have been contemporary with Neanderthal humans. What would the interaction have been like? How would they have been different from each other? In the book the Neanderthals have less language skills and less high level intellectual functioning but more telepathic and instinctual abilities. The idea has always fascinated me. The idea of the “collective memory” functioning as some sort of instinctual knowledge.

Earthgirl's avatar

Adirondackwannabe Do you believe I didn’t even know what water witching was until you made me look it up? It looks weird. You really did that? How far did you have to dig down for water?
The song was beautiful, thanks :)

Earthgirl's avatar

I found this fascinating article on ants and locusts about swarming beahvior
involving fear of cannablism! Is it cooperation or survival skill?

Earthgirl's avatar

Esedess Support for your theory from Wikipedia :
Brain size at birth relative to adult brain size
Like humans, elephants must learn behavior as they grow up. They are not born with the instincts of how to survive.[21] Elephants have a very long period in their lives for learning, lasting for around ten years. One comparative way to try to gauge intelligence is to compare brain size at birth to the fully developed adult brain. This indicates how much learning a species accumulates while young. The majority of mammals are born with a brain close to 90% of the adult weight,[21] while Humans are born with 28%,[21] bottlenose dolphins with 42.5%,[22] chimpanzees with 54%,[21] and elephants with 35%.[23] This indicates that elephants have the highest amount of learning to undergo next to humans, and behavior is not mere instinct but must be taught throughout life. It should be noted that instinct is quite different from learned intelligence. Parents will teach their young how to feed, use tools and learn their place in the highly complex elephant society. The cerebrum temporal lobes, which function as storage of memory, are much larger than those of a human.

ETpro's avatar

@Earthgirl What a fascinating question. Also an interesting and useful piece of information about brain size of various mammals at birth vs. at adulthood. The comment @LostInParadise made about this question being a great mystery at present time is fairly accurate. We do know a few things for certain, but there remains a great deal that science does not yet know. There are various researchers in neuroscience with all sorts of competing postulates, but no theory of human behavior has yet been established.

As to @wundayatta fascinating expose on how certain chemicals impact thought, we do have a pretty good idea how that works. Each neuron has specialized synapses with receptors that link perfectly with enzymes and chemicals our body produces. We have receptors for pain and receptors for pain-killing chemicals we produce. We have ones for fear and for fearlessness, joy and sadness, etc. By mimicking the key-like pattern that fits into a given receptor, we can make an artificial pain killer that turns off those receptors so they don’t tell us we are hurting even though we actually are. Thanks goodness this is possible, because without it, open heart surgery would be so painful it would likely drive a weak heart into overload and kill the patient.

@thorninmud covered a great deal of ground. About all I can add past that is some reading recommendations. Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop is fascination and thought provoking. It draws on a previous work, Gödel, Escher, Bach; An Eternal Golden Braid and unifies the strange loop understanding of each of those geniuses. Here’s a teaser from I Am a Strange Loop, “In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference.” It’s all about how our thought processes use self referential systems, feedback loops and self teaching neural networks to do what they do.

Another fascinating work is Harvard Prof. Steven Pinker’s 1997 book, How the Mind Works You might like to check out some of his more recent works as well.

These two authors reference a wealth of other work on the subject, much of which remains unread but still on my reading list.

Earthgirl's avatar

THanks ETPro, lots to read! I’ll get back to you later

Earthgirl's avatar

ETPro I really want to read that book by Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works. It is interesting that in the Wikipedia article they talk about how he differs from Noam Chomsky on language. I never thought of language as an instinct and apparently that is one of Pinker’s theories, that language is an instinct, not, as Noam Chomsky’s believes, a facet of adaptation.
I may not have that worded exactly right. I definitely want to read more on this though.

ETpro's avatar

@Earthgirl I certainly don’t want to put words in the mouth of a man far more informed on the topic than I am, but Pinker posits that there is an underlying mentalese that all human languages are built upon, and that potentiates our ability to develop and learn complex languages. He’s far from messianic about the Language of Thought Hypothesis (LOTH), and investigates competing theories in his book, but he details why he tends to think that Jerry Fodor, the first to propose the LOTH, just may be right.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Earthgirl , I found the book quite eye opening. Pinker makes a pretty good case for a language instinct. For example, he mentions the complexity of the grammar mastered by the average four year old, which is learned without explicit instruction. The average person has a vocabulary of about 40,000 words. Compare that with the difficulty most children have of mastering the multiplication table. Most surprisingly to me, Pinker talks about cases where people in isolation created their own language, complete with grammar.

Esedess's avatar

@Earthgirl
Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’ve been dead sick for a few days.

That’s all very interesting! Thank you for those figures; it’s nice to finally have some actual research to throw in on that makeshift concept I alluded to. I’ll have to check out that book you mentioned. Sounds pretty interesting.

Regarding behavior, I once read some research trials that reveal some interesting insights into the choices we make, and why we make them. The experiment was to have two dogs suspended in harnesses within separate cubicles. The dogs were periodically subjected to minor, but painful, electric shocks. In one of the dog’s cubes there was a panel on the wall, which if pressed would stop the shock. The dog in the cube with the panel eventually figured this out and would quickly press the panel with its nose, thus ceasing the shock for both dogs. The shocks were controlled simultaneously by this one panel. Although both dogs received the exact same amount of shocks for the same durations, one dog perceived the shocks as uncontrollable, while the other did not. The dogs were later led to another cube where the floor was periodically electrocuted, but where the walls were short enough to jump over and escape. They found that dogs which had learned they could personally control and escape the pain of their previous trials, quickly found the short wall and jumped out, while the dogs which had perceived their predicament as uncontrollable would lay on the floor and take the shocks without any attempt to escape their agony.
Another experiment on the same matter was also done with mice in a sink or swim scenario yielding the same results, but it would be somewhat redundant to elaborate on.

The point of these experiments was to better understand how perception could influence choice, and by association, behavior. However, as life instinctively/biologically flees pain, I think it’s a safe bet to also look at these results in terms of instinct VS learned behavior. If something as rudimentary and universal as “pain=bad/get away”, can be overcome with learned perception, it’s hard to imagine that much, if not all, of our behaviors aren’t subject to filtering through higher thought processes in some way. While a creature may be born with pure instinct, I think compounding experiences quickly contaminate that original demeanor and result in a new concoction of thought, to the degree that that creature can “think”.

That being said, I can’t help feeling that underneath “this” choice, which lead to “that” choice, which lead to another, which influenced the most recent, and so on and so on… that somewhere beneath all that, there lies an uninhibited nature that somehow eludes us, but is still completely us.

Another question that just popped into my head, that goes with yours is: does intelligence work with or against instinct?

Earthgirl's avatar

Esedess I’m sorry you were feeling ill lately. Thanks for remembering me and coming back to my question, which, I realize, is quite broad. If we kept this post going for years we would never be able to cover the question but I was hoping to get some interesting responses and I have.

I am familiar with the phenomena you write about. The researchers termed it learned helplessness. The whole concept was eye opening to me as well. When I learned about it I felt like it had so many implications in the real world. The idea that people could be conditioned by their experiences to feel hopeless, to basically give up trying from having experienced repeated failure, well, it seemed to explain a lot about human behavior and why some people excel and others falter. I don’t know how much I would link it to defeating an instinctual behavior though. I need to think about that. It seems to me that instinctual behavior would be so wired into us that it would be near impossible to extinguish. Socialized goal setting behavior on the other hand would be more subject to the vicissitudes of fate.

I’ve decided to buy this book on Intuition. Looks like the first reviewer wrote a good synopsis.

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