Tag Archives: instincts

You once said that a human trying to follow their instinct would get killed in a fight. But what about someone who is not a human, like a human/dragon hybrid. Being descended from a race of apex predators who have been hunting and killing prey and enemies with their own bodies rather than using weapons or tools.

The problem with this logic is that its avoiding the basic issue of instincts and combat, which is that the most basic combat techniques are designed to exploit your natural instincts. In this case, it’s your reflexes, your response to danger or when under threat. Combat is about finding holes in the defenses, in utilizing your opponent’s reactions, and even acting in such a way that tricks them into the response you want.

The reason why martial combat works the way it does is because the techniques are designed around dealing with human opponents, but it applies as much to say dealing with attack dogs as it does with humans. There are people out there right now trained in how to handle an attack from dogs, and utilize those same attack instincts and patterns against the animal in a manner that is either offensive or defensive. The same goes for any other animal, and it would be the same for any other species.

There is nothing natural, really, about modern combat when it comes to the human instincts. Your instincts are retrained over the course of your training, adapt as you learn new techniques and acquire new skills, then run the risk of getting exploited when these same techniques disseminate into common knowledge and your enemy develops a counter designed to mess with what previously worked.

On a purely cerebral level, from strategy to application, martial combat is all about fucking with your opponent.

Humans are persistence predators, we have the capacity as a species to simply keep going and to quickly recover. We excel at working together in groups. Apex predators come with their own drawbacks, and those instinctual drawbacks can be just as easily exploited when someone realizes what they’re dealing with.

When we’re looking at practical combat, you must continually update your skills to keep pace with opponents who are learning to counter what you were trained in.

Instincts don’t update. They may change over the course of thousands of years, but we’re talking about changes that need to be made within months and sometimes even days. That is why instincts put you at the bottom when it comes to practical combat, because that’s where you start when learning how to exploit people. When you’re fighting by instinct and up against someone who understands how your body functions, you may find anything between your nervous system being messed with, exploited by the way your eye and brain tracks moving objects, and walk right into their fist.

A character possessing different instincts don’t solve the issue because practical combat adapts around the idea of exploiting how your enemy’s mind and body function. In the advanced stages, it moves on to exploiting how a trained combatant’s mind and body have been trained to function.

A fantasy apex predator like a dragon attempting to hunt a human still falls prey to those same limitations and the same exploitation if the human can figure out their behavior patterns. If they learn nothing else, then they’re still at the bottom.

So, no, it doesn’t help them that much.


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Does the saying “trust your instincts” have actual weight in real life combat and strategic/critical thinking? It’s a bit unclear to me if instincts are equated to experience when it comes to such things, and while I understand how relying on experience can help you, aren’t instincts more unreliable and unquantifiable? And possibly more prone to bias?

The answer is both yes and no.

Everything that’s considered “instinct” by most people are actually based on experience or confused with reflex. What most fictional worlds mean by instinct is the character did it without thinking about it and serves as an easy justification for why the character could behave as the plot demands. The problem with this method of thinking is that it drives directly against what instincts are.

Instinct is your Fight or Flight response.

99% of the time when someone’s referring to instinct, they’re usually talking either about their reflexes or about a learned behavior. Your responses to different situations can be trained and are constantly being updated as you gather new information.

Combat training will retrain your “natural” responses to situations and stimuli. A character isn’t going to load and fire a pistol off the cuff, pull off a proper punch with no outside stimuli, or notice when a fight’s about to start if they have no understanding of human behavior. You can be trained, passively by life experience, aided by outside stimuli, or intentionally, to perform or recognize these actions. You can become so practiced at them that they become reflexive and you do them without thinking about it. That’s the point of training and practice, to teach you how to act without being slowed down by your thoughts.

Now, any behavior you practice or pattern you follow can be exploited by someone who knows it’s there.

Say you get into a practiced pattern where you always show up at home five minutes after five at the end of the day. If someone was unsure where to find you but knew you’d always be home at exactly five minutes after five, then they could move to intercept you.

Combat does this all the time. A technique becomes a practiced pattern of behavior, one that has moved from thinking to automatic. However, the more a technique is in use then the more others become aware of it and how it works, they develop their counters to it.

Feints in martial arts are about disrupting what as become your instinctual reaction to an incoming blow, in order to trick you into reacting to a false action so that your defenses are opened and your opponent can hit you.

A common beginners combo in Taekwondo is the backfist and right punch.

The martial artist throws the backfist as a feint, the backfist catches in their target’s peripheral vision and they raise their front hand to block. The martial artists switches to punch them in their now open midsection.

The basic thought is: if I flash my hand in your peripheral vision, your first instinct will be to raise your hand to stop it. Sometimes, you’ll raise both hands. Sometimes, you’ll even turn your head to protect from harm. Best case on top of everything else is you closing your eyes in preparation for the hit.

When this happens, I have opened up your whole body to do whatever I want with it.

Your body’s natural instincts will always protect what your body prioritizes as its most important parts. These are the parts it needs to keep existing. These are your head and your internal organs. This is why when you’re injured, your body always moves to curl up into a ball. When you’re trapped on the ground, your first instinct will be to roll over.

Protect the head. Protect the center.

It is more complicated than this, but on a simple level this is what the natural human reaction to injury is.

Combat exploits those reactions, even the most basic cheap street fight techniques.

Here’s the rhythm:

1) You get sucker punched in the gut.

Natural reaction: You bowl over. Your head and arms come forward. One by the force of air leaving your lungs, two to protect your stomach, the part of you that was just hit. Your body’s natural reaction is to move the damaged body part away from danger.

3) They grab your head as it comes forward.

Natural reaction: When your body reacts to an injury, it is not normally conscious of its surroundings. The grabbing of the head is the exploiting of this response.

4) They knee you in the face.

Natural reaction: This move is easy enough to pull off that most people have learned it from watching kickboxing, MMA/UFC, or some other type of action movie. A knee strike doesn’t take the same amount of training as a kick. This isn’t a natural reaction at all. It’s a learned behavior.

The general rule of thumb regarding instincts in the martial field is don’t trust them. Use your head instead. Instincts react directly to generalities, they don’t take the situation into account. Your fight or flight could send you running right into a wall. It could send you running at the enemy behind you that you didn’t see. It can be used against you.


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I have a question about the instinct post, fleeing specifically. I had to run from serious danger once when I was 14 and I thought of it as instinctual, but my mind actually got really clear and I remember thinking things like I’d turn a corner rather than cut through to reduce chances of tripping and falling and the best route to reach the street where there would be people who could help. I didn’t feel panic until after I was safe (broke down sobbing then). So what was that if not instinct?

You using your brain. That was you problem solving on the fly. That was not some deep seated instinctual ability. That was you processing information, making intelligent choices in a stressful situation based on what you knew about your environment, and saving yourself.

It’s called “thinking on your feet”.

You said it yourself, you remember thinking about things.

Instinct gets you as far as running or into flight mode, but it has no direction. If you don’t start thinking about where you need to go, what you need to do, which route to take, then you can end up literally anywhere. The same is actually true for fight, one reacts on anger and fear, leap on the other person with a scream, maybe tackle them to the ground, and start swinging wildly in a blind rage.

That didn’t happen for you, you used your head. You may not realize what you were doing, but that’s what was happening. That wasn’t actually instinct. A form of self-preservation? Sure. Some level of intuition? Yeah. But not instinct.

You used your head. Acting on knowledge you had, you made decisions. You grabbed your life with two hands, and you didn’t just run for it. On the fly, you suppressed your panic, you didn’t let fear take charge, you used it, and dealt with information. You picked the best route to actually saving your life. More than that, you succeeded. You saved yourself.

You saved yourself.

That’s huge.

So, stop giving your instincts more credit than they deserve. Give it to your intuition and cognitive processes instead. Why? You’re smarter and more capable than your giving yourself credit for. This is within your ability to control it. You controlled your instincts, they didn’t control you. In the crucible of life and death, in the midst of an incredibly stressful situation where you were running for your life, you came out on top and it was all you.

Just you.

And you could do it again.

This isn’t a one time, miracle thing. You could intentionally
replicate this experience without the danger, and you probably do in
your daily life without realizing it. This won’t just happen when you’re in danger. While the danger gave you the push to realize that you needed to.

Our brains are very complicated, and we do think on multiple levels. Often, like when we’re in danger, those can feel like they’re outside of our control. Except, what you did was the actions of someone who was in control. Which I will reiterate, in the heat of the moment you made choices cognitively that lead to saving your own life.

The major problem with ascribing these experiences, experiences you may not have completely understood at the time, to instinct is that it ascribes everything we did to something else that’s outside of our control. That it’s something that can only happen when we’re in danger. Some other part of ourselves which exists in a nebulous state and slumbering until trouble arrives.

It’s a nice idea, especially since it’s an easy way to avoid challenging your own perceptions about yourself and what you’re capable of.

When you’re ascribing what happened to your instincts, you’re selling yourself short. This is especially true if you’re female and are already pushed by society to accept a passive role, to not see yourself as an active decision maker who is in control of your own existence. Someone who is capable of action, of taking charge. Pawn it off on instinct, and we can just go back to our own self-doubts. Ignore the proof, staring us in the face, that we have it in us to be incredible.

You are incredible.

You are amazing.

Not your instincts. Not some nebulous thing existing in a separate space and not part of your regular existence.


Just you.

You saved yourself.

And knowing that? It’s empowering.

Empowerment doesn’t come from the amount of ass you can kick. Or from running around swinging a gun. Or from being violent or engaging in violence. It comes from making decisions, from taking action derived from choices and accepting the responsibility which comes with those choices.

It’s terrifying.

It’s also freeing.

So much of what we do is learned behavior, even when we don’t realize that we’ve learned it. The kind of rationality and logic you experienced doesn’t happen to everyone. A lot of people out there when they’re in danger freeze up, run without thinking, or end up going nowhere.

The ability to utilize your intelligence under pressure is a powerful thing.

Give yourself more credit.

Because you can do it again in your daily life, whenever you want and whenever you need to.

Powerless or powerful? All it takes is realization. So, which would you rather be?


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What are the advantages and disadvantages of relying on your instincts alone in a fight?

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.

That’s bad.

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.

Go figure.

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.


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