All animals have basic instincts developed over centuries of survival. Humans are no exception. 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 in light of today's technological advances, such as cars. Still others are useful, but they must be understood and controlled or else they may also be dangerous.
One thing that separate 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 do sexual predators, but we have control over our instincts. We do not have to succumb to our instincts; we have the ability to resist them. This control is honed by martial artists through their training and is used to their advantage.
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. However, in modern times this instinct has been warped by junk food.
We have an instinct for fear. 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. See the Fear topic for more information on this subject.
Millions of years ago, our distant ancestors were constantly choosing between risky options, balancing threats from predators and unknown landscapes 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. That is one of the reasons we are draw to them.
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.
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.
Our bodies also drive us to win by making losing feel terrible. Moreover, we are more likely to remember our losses—to help us try and avoid doing the same thing again. However, losing is not just about feeling bad. In a hierarchical world, reputations are very important—even more important than not losing, is not being seen to be a loser. Our instructors tell us that the most important thing in 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. In addition, 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 actually competing ourselves. Therefore, all our instincts for survival 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 get beat by another.
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. It is not good when a fist is flying toward the face. When sparring, we must train ourselves to keep our eyes open so we may defend against the fist.
Another instinctive response to something flying toward the face is to turn the face away and duck the head. This is also not good 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.
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. Just as in sparring, your best bet of making a successful attack is when the opponent is attacking. At that moment, they are vulnerable and they are not thinking about defense. 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.
Another instinctive movement that occurs when suddenly frightened or a loud noise occurs is to flinch. This is 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.
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.
To be a great fighter, you must fight instinctively. These fighting instincts come from lots of experience in fighting and from repetitive training. When you train over and over to respond in certain way, when the need arises, you will respond instinctively. Homerun hitters do not think about hitting a fastball, there is no time to think. They just relax, concentrate, and react instinctively to the pitch. Great fighters react the same way. They put themselves into the "zone" and then instinctively block and attack as required.
Learn your instincts and learn how to control them. Learn to suppress instincts that are harmful and learn how to exploit those that are beneficial.