Your instincts will get you killed.
That’s pretty much the first rule. Whether it’s fight or flight, you’re screwed coming or going. The reason being when you rely on your instincts, you’ve usually turned off your brain. If you’re not thinking your way out of the situation, then you’re in trouble. You’ve ceded control to your opponent.
The first thing to remember is that “natural instinct” is a known quantity. The way we fight has been part of our consistent cultural evolution for, probably, as long as we’ve existed as a species. Our instincts? Those haven’t actually changed that much.
The first thing anyone learns to do when fighting, whether they’re trained or not, is subvert a less experienced enemy. Your average schoolyard bully can take advantage of your natural instincts. Like flinching, for example. Someone thrusts their hand into your face, your eyes squeeze shut, you tense up, and depending on how quick you are then maybe raise your hands. That’s a natural instinct to protect yourself from harm, by the way.
Your natural instinct is not to catch the hand by the wrist. It isn’t to block. Or even lunge at them. Oh no. It’s close your eyes and protect your face. Your eyes are one of those primary ‘protect at all cost’ parts of your body.
Now, your eyes are closed. You can’t see. You’re wide open.
Free sucker punch to your stomach.
Here’s the thing, your instincts can be great for a lot of different situations. Learning to trust your gut and your intuition? That’s important. The same instincts that can get you killed or badly injured in a fight will save your life in a car crash. Trusting your body, trusting your intuition, learning to accept that part of you actually is important because your instincts are predominately there to protect you.
The problem is that your instincts are based around the most basic kind of survival. There is no separate part of your body that just innately “knows” how to fight or even protect yourself. It certainly doesn’t know the most efficient way to do that. It will sacrifice other parts of your body to protect the most necessary ones, the ones that will keep you breathing. And, often in doing so, expose you to more harm.
For example, when you’re on the ground and being hit, your first instinct is actually to turtle up. Your face and your stomach area are full of important organs you need to survive, so you’ll roll over onto your stomach, cover your head, and expose your back to your enemy. Maybe you’ll attempt to crawl away.
This will leave you pinned with no ability to fight back. When it comes to striking with your limbs on the ground, you need to be facing your opponent. Can’t do that if you’re on your back. You can’t even kick if you’re flat against the ground because there’s no way to move your legs. So, your opponent can just keep wailing on the back of your head until you pass out and/or die.
Even punching, which everyone thinks is natural, yes? This is not a part of your natural repertoire. Even if you’ve never been trained to punch, when you do you’re actually imitating what you’ve seen either on the part of television or other sources. Punching isn’t something you instinctually know how to do. It’s a learned behavior, and a trained movement.
And the people who’ve never been trained to punch? They’re bad at it. More given to wide wild swings that feel good, but generate less power. They fight almost entirely with their upper body rather than utilizing their entire body, leading to the mistaken assumption that combat effectiveness is entirely reliant on upper body strength.
The big guy must be best, they say. Why? He has the most strength!
Then, you train in martial arts, and learn that tall people have a much harder time maintaining their balance than someone small and compact. They are much easier to destabilize and knock over, having to spread their legs wider and drop lower in their stances than someone short. Center of gravity is higher and, therefore, one must go lower.
For a lot of people, their natural instinct when learning to punch is to stick their thumb inside their fist. Why? To protect the thumb. Seems logical. Except, you need the thumb to reinforce the other fingers so that you don’t break your hand when you connect.
Run on instinct and you will flee blindly. As in, your brain is turned off and you are not running with purpose, this means you will go wherever. 50/50 chance or less that you will actually escape because you didn’t think about where you were going. This means you could run down a blind alley, end up in a dead end, run into gunfire, into enemies, whatever. You didn’t even pick a direction, you just went.
You want to use your teeth in a fight? That’s natural. Sink your teeth into some guy’s neck and you’re head/neck will naturally move to tear out as much flesh as possible. Like you’d see with any dog.
This is the big problem with instinct. To say that you’re fighting like an animal is wrong because that conjures up the wrong idea, ironically. We say, “fighting like an animal” and assume it means violent, wild, and vicious. What I actually mean is that an animal has a set array of instinctual responses when faced with a threat. You don’t learn how to fight a dog like you would a human because dogs, as wonderful and effective as they are, have a very set way that they attack and, while they do learn, it doesn’t change. When you’re faced with a dog, you can count on the dog to react within a very specific frame of behaviors that can be countered fairly easily when you know what you’re looking for. A dog is always dangerous, but if you understand how dogs behave then you know what to expect. Even dogs that have been trained to attack.
When you fight on instinct? You are the dog.
And you will never be fighting “purely on instinct” because, unless you live in a vacuum or underground in isolation, you’re surrounded by examples of violence and violent behavior. You’re inundated with the concept of combat, often so much so that the average person often believes they already know how. They don’t have to learn because they’ve been exposed to so many examples of it. In the vast majority of street fights you can find online you’ll notice that they aren’t fighting on instinct. They’re imitating what they’ve seen from the movies, MMA, boxing, or other forms of professional fighting. Often even Professional Wrestling and that’s just stunt actors having fun.
Then, we have examples right here on Tumblr where there’s constant reblogging of self-defense tips without the caveat that you need to find a real professional to teach you how to use what you’re seeing. On the belief that because one can see and understand the concept cognitively they can then do it physically.
This is before we get to the myth of “natural talent > training”. Media presents the idea constantly that violence is something you “just know how to do”, often cheapening the years of work and dedication of the artists in question telling those stories. You don’t need to sign up for self-defense classes, girls. Your natural instincts will protect you!
We’re so inundated with violence through media or in our surroundings that we’ve come to think that it’s just a natural behavior. Many authors, screenwriters, and directors play it off as that too because thinking about fighting like it’s magic is easier than actually figuring out how it works.
Let me be frank, while violence may be a part of who we are as a species, there’s nothing natural about modern combat. Combat is science, it’s based on learning about the human body and human psychology then subverting that to your own advantage. It is the inverse of medicine, using a greater understanding of how another person thinks, moves, and behaves in order to harm them. Many martial arts and military combat forms are highly sophisticated in terms of all three levels.
Combat training, regardless of what kind it is, will retrain your instincts. It retrains the way you think and move, even behave, so that you’re better able to respond to threats. It teaches you how to move in order to generate the most power while receiving the least injury and where to strike on the body in order to be effective.
When a hand comes toward my face, my hands come up but my eyes don’t close. I may move to intercept the hand, knock it away by stepping forward into a fighting stance or back into one and out of the way. My back foot lifts onto the ball so my heel is off the ground, I shift my weight forward onto my front foot, my shoulders turns slightly sideways. And there, I’m in my fighting stance/ready position.
This all happens without me thinking about it because years of drilling have trained me to respond that way when it comes to movement my brain perceives as threatening. I can choose whether to act on it, and over time it has become a natural part how I respond to threats. However, it’s a trained response. It isn’t natural. It can be taught, it can be learned by anyone with enough time and practice, but it won’t happen as a part of the basic instinctual package.
This is where it all falls apart.
Honestly, it is easier to treat combat like magic. Like high level combat is some basic integral part of the character’s person and they’re so talented that they just innately know how, they don’t need to engage in too much training or understand the culture. They don’t need to be changed by the experience. It makes life easy for the author. If fighting is just innately a part of whatever character you create, then they can have whatever personality you like.
And, you know, that’s fine. There are countless beloved characters out there whose personalities don’t reflect what they do or the world they live in. They’re entertaining, they’re enjoyable, and, in many cases, beloved. I mean, the Mean Girl formula is at play in many a YA novel even though there’s no reason for it. “These characters have trained their whole life to kill, yet they’re going to engage in the exact same behavior seen in a stereotypical Beverly Hills cheerleader on television that’s only worried about whether she’ll be getting that new Buick for her birthday.”
Basically, instinct is an easy out. It’s not, but it gets treated that way. Then, it becomes conventional wisdom and we see it everywhere.