Combat>Mental aspects>Instincts

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All animals have basic instincts developed over centuries of survival, and so have humans. Our instincts were developed during humankind’s early years when there was no technology available for survival except for a stick and rock. In our modern times, these instincts are still a part of our makeup, but instead of being beneficial, some of them may even be harmful considering today's potentially harmful technological advances, such as cars. Other instincts remain useful, but they must be understood and controlled, or else they may also be dangerous.

Human instincts

One thing that separates humans from animals is that our brain evolved enough that it became aware of itself and it developed a way to control the body's basic instincts. Some blame their inappropriate or illegal behavior on instinct, such as sexual predators, but most of us have control over our instincts. We do not have to succumb to our instincts; we can resist them. Martial artists hone the control of their instincts through their training and use their instincts to their advantage.

Some of our instincts


One of the first instincts we use in our lives is the cry. It is the first thing a baby does in response to just about anything. It is not learned, it is instinctive. Being very loud, about 97 decibels—equivalent to a pneumatic drill, a cry alerts the mother who may be up to a mile away. As adults, when in danger, one of our first instincts is to yell or cry. As martial artists, we learn to use the kiai for many reasons, one of which is to warn others that we need help.


We have an instinct for knowing which foods are good or bad for us. Our tongue has evolved to have over 5,000 taste buds—letting us know what to swallow and what to spit out. People can overcome this instinct by training. The first time anyone tastes alcohol, it tastes awful; their bodies were instinctively trying to protect them. But by repeatedly drinking it, people learn to tolerate and even like it even though they know it is harmful.


We have a fear instinct. We seem to know what will harm us and we fear it. Our bodies have developed responses to fearful things. These responses may be useful in a self-defense situation if they are understood and used properly. The fear article has more information on this subject


Millions of years ago, our distant ancestors were constantly choosing between risky options, balancing threats from predators and the unknown against potential rewards. We are all descended from those humans who took risks and won and then went on to populate the world. This explains why today some people have a penchant for risky behavior. Even in today's watered-down form, training in the martial arts carries some risk. This is one of the reasons we are drawn to them.


As young children, we compete for the most useful resource available—our parents’ attention—so children compete with their siblings for this attention. If they fail to get noticed, they release another powerful and effective weapon—the temper tantrum. This invariably gets their parent's attention. If you watch a martial arts tournament, you will see this instinct of whining when we do not get what we want is alive and well.


For our ancient ancestors, beating the opposition was important. It meant they were more likely to survive and have children. Those who got pleasure from winning were more successful and passed the desire for victory on to their children. Therefore, over generations, our bodies have evolved to give us a feeling of euphoria when we win. We are biologically programmed to get a kick out of winning.


Our bodies also drive us to win by making losing feel terrible. Moreover, we are more likely to remember our losses and to help us avoid doing the same thing again. However, losing is not just about feeling bad. In a hierarchical world, reputations are especially important. Even more important than not losing, is not being seen to be a loser. Our instructors tell us that the most important thing about competing is having fun, but we know the truth. Winning is fun, losing sucks.


The most unusual thing about the way humans compete is that we are not just out for ourselves; we team up with others. Also, we experience the joy of winning and the agony of defeat just as vividly when watching our family, friends, or favorite team as if we were competing ourselves. Therefore, all our survival instincts may be transferred to our feelings about a group of people. A teammate may beat us in a match, but then we feel bad if the teammate gets beat by another.


When we are suddenly frightened or hear a loud noise, we instinctively freeze. This was a good defense when an animal that depended on movement to see prey, such as a rhinoceros, was attacking. However, nowadays, freezing in the middle of a crosswalk when a truck horn sounds is not a good idea. It is also not a good thing to do when an attacker jumps out of the bushes. The freeze response is practically useless unless you are tracking game or sneaking up on a sentry, so we need to train ourselves to react, not freeze.


When an object fast approaches the eyes, they instinctively blink to protect themselves. This is good when hammering and a clip flies toward the eyes. However, it not a good thing to do while sparring. Looking away from a fist will not make it go away. To stop the fist, we must be able to see it. We must train ourselves to face threats and make appropriate responses.


Another instinctive response to something flying toward the face or a loud noise is flinching, to suddenly just away from a possible threat. This movement enables the body quickly to respond to an attack. However, due to the lack of our experience in defending ourselves daily, most people have no idea what to do in response to attack other than to flinch. With training, the flinch may be used to trigger an immediate response to a threat.

Bringing up the hands

When something large is thrown toward us, it is instinctive to bring the hands up in front of our body or face for protection. This is why fakes work so well. However, many times a better response is to slip or sidestep the object. With training, we may learn to use avoidance as a first response rather than to block with the arms.

Train to fight instinctively

To be a great fighter, you must fight instinctively. These fighting instincts come from repetitive training and lots of fighting experience. When you repetitively train to respond in a certain way, when the need arises, you will respond instinctively. Home run hitters do not think about hitting a fastball, there is no time to think. They just relax, concentrate, and instinctively react to the pitch. Great fighters react the same way. They put themselves into the "zone" and then instinctively block and attack as required.

Accept your instincts and learn how to control them. Train to suppress or redirect instincts that are harmful and learn how to exploit those that are beneficial.

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