I know two approaches for instinct - the neuroscientist one that says instinct is not something spontaneous, but rather dependent on life experience. And the mystical unconscious one that says instinct is a connection to the unconscious spirit of the world (19th century Germans, especially Hegel, Hartmann, Schopenhauer).

I was wondering, what more approaches are there today, and which are the more popular ones?

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    Hartmann and Schopenhauer are not German idealists. They were an irrationalist backlash against German idealism with its pervasive rationalism, and promoted blind will and the unconscious, which Freud later associated with instincts of the Id. His theory is outdated now, and instinct in psychology is mostly reserved for animal behavior. Schopenhauer's World Will is hardly the "spirit" of the world, and Hegel's Geist is a rationalist construct, the "cosmic connection" is more in the spirit of romantics and late Schelling.
    – Conifold
    Feb 12, 2018 at 21:07
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    @Conifold I've fixed it a bit. Hegel doesn't say there's a mystical spirit of the world? I don't see how is that possible, seeing as his most famous book is called "Phenomenology of Spirit" (and he clearly says history is the way the spirit of the world can be viewed). Hegel, Schelling, both of them are considered romantics. And I agree Schopenhauer's Will isn't the same kind of Spirit the others are talking about, but it's definitely similar. Feb 12, 2018 at 22:18
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    Hegel's "romanticism" was of a peculiar sort, considering his much more pronounced panrationalism. His "Spirit" is essentially collective Reason of human societies which evolve through history until they become totally rational and totally self-conscious. The "mystical" side of this is mostly his style of exposition. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were a romantic reaction against dominant Hegelianism in Germany. In a way, Schopenhauer's irrational Will was an inverted caricature of Hegel's rational Geist.
    – Conifold
    Feb 13, 2018 at 0:49
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    @Conifold I don't agree on that interpretation of Hegel, and I definitely agree Schopenhauer is against Hegelianism, but nonetheless, it's unimportant discussion for this question. If you want, we can continue it in chat. Feb 13, 2018 at 7:13
  • Pass, but you should read what Schopenhauer had to say about Hegel.
    – Conifold
    Feb 13, 2018 at 18:39

5 Answers 5


I was wondering, what more approaches are there today, and which are the more popular ones?

Here I try to present before you a brief note on the issue based on the references given below- which can give approaches towards investigating "Instinct'

Instinct is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior. The simplest example can be a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.

The role of instincts in determining the behavior of animals varies from species to species. Lionesses and chimpanzees raised in zoos away from their birth mothers most often reject their own offspring because they have not been taught the skills of mothering.

Instinct can be investigated from a multitude of angles:

genetics, limbic system, nervous pathways, and the environment.

Every complex behavior challenges us to identify its origins. How do birds know to migrate south for the winter? How do border collies know to herd sheep? How do sea turtles find their way back home to the beach on which they hatched? Scratch the surface of any complex, adaptive behavior and one is confronted with a seemingly endless array of hard questions spanning evolutionary and developmental time, the intricacies of ecological and social experience, and the machinations of the nervous system with its billions of neurons. As Patrick Bateson1 has pointed out, this conceptual confusion about instinct is reflected in the many meanings that are routinely ascribed to it, including: • present at birth, • not learned • developed before it is used • unchanged once developed • shared by all members of a species • adapted during evolution • served by a distinct module in the brain • attributable to genes

The modern study of instinct began in the 1930s with the emergence of ethology.

Ethology is a subdiscipline of zoology devoted to understanding behavior in its natural context. One of the founders of ethology, Konrad Lorenz, popularized this new discipline for the general public with his many famous images of “imprinted” ducklings walking behind the bearded Austrian as if he were their mother.

In 1973, the young science of ethology received a significant vote of approval when three of its founders—Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch—received the Nobel Prize in Lorenz aimed to do for behavior what Charles Darwin's evolutionary insights did for bones.

Writing in Scientific American in 19582, Lorenz begins with a familiar discussion of the evolution of forelimbs: “A whale's flipper, a bat's wing and a man's arm are as different from one another in outward appearance as they are in the functions they serve. But the bones of these structures reveal an essential similarity of design. The zoologist concludes that whale, bat and man evolved from a common ancestor” Physiology or Medicine.

As his first example, he cites head-scratching in birds, which he observes to be perfectly consistent from bird to bird: produced by crossing a hindlimb over the wing so as to reach the head.

Writing in Scientific American, in an article cunningly titled “How an instinct is learned,” Hailman5 challenged Lorenz's fundamental notion of instinct: “The term `instinct,' as it is often applied to animal and human behavior, refers to a fairly complex, stereotyped pattern of activity that is common to the species and is inherited and unlearned. Yet, braking an automobile and swinging a baseball bat are complex, stereotyped behavioral patterns that can be observed in many members of the human species, and these patterns certainly cannot be acquired without experience. Perhaps stereotyped behavior patterns of animals also require subtle forms of experience for development” (p. 241). Hailman meticulously demonstrated the influence of such subtle forms of experience through his investigations of pecking in newly hatched sea gulls.

Hailman's perspective is a forerunner to today's developmental systems approach to the origins of abilities, traits, and behaviors6. The striking observation that guides the developmental systems approach is that processes—sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle—give rise to the emergent properties of each individual's behavior. DNA plays a critical role in these processes, but does not by itself create traits. Accordingly, instincts are not preprogrammed, hardwired, or genetically determined; rather, they emerge each generation through a complex cascade of physical and biological influences.

Gilbert Gottlieb investigated another form of imprinting— auditory imprinting—in which newly hatched chicks and ducklings are attracted to the mother's call8. Because the behavior of hatchlings seemed to be expressed without any obvious experience with the mother or her call, this adaptive behavior was thought to be an instinct. However, Gottlieb pursued this question in a way that no one else had before him by asking whether embryos obtain critical experiences while still in the egg. Amazingly, he found that they do Consider gravity, which exerts its effects everywhere and continually. It shapes and orders life on our planet: A tree's trunk is rooted in the ground and its leaves point skyward, where birds fly with their bellies directed back toward the ground.

To circumvent this problem, April Ronca, Jeffrey Alberts, and their colleagues flew pregnant rats on the NASA Space Shuttle during a period of gestation when the vestibular system is developing12. These pregnant rats returned to Earth two days before delivering their offspring, which were then compared to “ground controls” that were gestated normally on Earth. over, falling to the bottom of the tank on their backs.

*Interestingly, after a week of experience in Earth's gravity the pups' righting responses were no longer impaired, which raises the question of whether isolation from Earth's gravity across the entire period of vestibular system development would lead to more lasting effects.

Regardless, the lesson from this research is clear: As with Gottlieb's mallard ducklings, the presence of complex and adaptive behavior at birth tells us very little about the developmental importance of environmental factors to that behavior. Clearly, even the “simplest” instincts develop, and do so in response to numerous factors that we inherit from our parents, including the gravitational environment of our parents' home planet.


The study of anomalous creatures—whether they arise through physical or genetic manipulation or alteration of the developmental environment—can provide key insights otherwise unavailable. Critically, anomalous creatures also help us to better understand the processes the guide typical development.

For example, Johnny Eck was a performer best known for his role in the 1932 cult classic movie, Freaks. Born with a condition known as amelia, his legs were exceedingly short and functionless. Like other individuals with this condition, Eck learned to walk using his hands. As he demonstrates repeatedly in Freaks, Eck's locomotion was fluid and graceful. Eck could walk down steps and climb ladders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4aET2RGG5Q). He used his hands the way most humans use their feet.

Similarly, Faith is a dog that was born in Oklahoma City with short, functionless forelimbs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSB9aBMayxU). As has occasionally been documented in animals with this condition, Faith learned to walk upright on her hind limbs.

But this is not merely a circus trick, as Faith's body grew in such a way to make upright walking possible, including a curved spine that shifted forward her center of mass. Thus, incredibly, Faith accomplished in one brief lifetime what has long been considered the crowning achievement of human evolution. Perhaps even more striking is Duncan, a boxer with malformed hind legs that walks and runs on his fore legs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaM-xXgl4Bs).

Johnny Eck, Faith, and Duncan force us to reconsider our standard ideas about normal and abnormal, typical and atypical, well-formed and deformed. These individuals grew into their bodies and learned to use them in highly functional ways.

Demonstrating close correspondences between body morphology and behavior does not necessarily mean that behavior flows from morphology. A skeptic might respond by saying that evolution ensured that behavior and morphology develop in a synchronous way without actually influencing one another.

But let's not forget Johnny Eck, Faith, and Duncan: the locomotor patterns in these individuals cannot be due to any preprogramming of behavior because their behavior reflects unique solutions to unique, species-atypical bodies. In other words, individual behaviors emerge from individual development. Whether typically or atypically formed, we all must learn through individual experience to use the bodies that we have—not the bodies that we were `supposed' to have.*

Species-typical behaviors can begin as subtle predispositions in cognitive processing or behavior. They also develop under the guidance of species-typical experiences occurring within reliable ecological contexts.

Those experiences and ecological contexts, together comprising what has been called an ontogenetic niche, are inherited along with parental genes. Stated more succinctly, environments are inherited—a notion that shakes the nature-nurture dichotomy to its core. That core is shaken still further by studies demonstrating how even our most ancient and basic appetites, such as that for water, are learned17. Our natures are acquired. The Instinct Theory of Motivation

Psychologist William McDougall suggested that instinctive behavior was composed of three essential elements: perception, behavior, and emotion. He also outlined 18 different instincts that included curiosity, the maternal instinct, laughter, comfort, sex, and hunger.

Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud used a broad view of motivation and suggested the human behavior was driven by two key forces: the life and death instincts.

Psychologist William James, on the other hand, identified a number of instincts that he believed were essential for survival. These included such things as fear, anger, love, shame, and cleanliness.

The instinct theory suggests that motivation is primarily biologically based. We engage in certain behaviors because they aid in survival. Migrating before winter ensures the survival of the flock, so the behavior has become instinctive. Birds who migrated were more likely to survive and therefore more likely to pass down their genes to future generations.

So what exactly qualifies as an instinct?

In his book Exploring Psychology, author David G. Meyers suggests that in order to be identified as an instinct, the behavior "must have a fixed pattern throughout a species and be unlearned."

In other words, the behavior must occur naturally and automatically in all organisms of that species. For example, infants have an innate rooting reflex that leads them to root for and suck on a nipple. This behavior is unlearned and occurs naturally in all human infants. Doctors often look for an absence of such instinctive reflexes in order to detect potential developmental issues.

While instinct theory could be used to explain some behaviors, critics felt that it had some significant limitations. Among these criticisms: • Instincts can't explain all behaviors • Instincts are not something that can be readily observed and scientifically tested • Just labeling something as an instinct does nothing to explain why some behaviors appear in certain instances but not in others

While there are criticisms of instinct theory, this does not mean that psychologists have given up on trying to understand how instincts can influence behavior.

Instead, modern psychologists understand that while certain tendencies might be biologically programmed, individual experiences can also play a role in how responses are displayed. For example, while we might be more biologically prepared to be afraid of a dangerous animal such as a snake or bear, we will never exhibit that fear if we are not exposed to those animals.

The Consciousness Instinct -

How do neurons turn into minds? How does physical “stuff”―atoms, molecules, chemicals, and cells―create the vivid and various worlds inside our heads? The problem of consciousness has gnawed at us for millennia. In the last century there have been massive breakthroughs that have rewritten the science of the brain, and yet the puzzles faced by the ancient Greeks are still present.

In The Consciousness Instinct, the neuroscience pioneer Michael S. Gazzaniga puts the latest research in conversation with the history of human thinking about the mind, giving a big-picture view of what science has revealed about consciousness.

Gazzaniga asserts that mind-brain model has it backward―brains make machines, but they cannot be reduced to one.

New research suggests the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together. Understanding how consciousness could emanate from such an organization will help define the future of brain science and artificial intelligence and close the gap between brain and mind. Captivating and accessible, with insights drawn from a lifetime at the forefront of the field, The Consciousness Instinct sets the course for the neuroscience of tomorrow.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instinct https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5182125/




Psycology must by neccessity grapple with instinct. From Freud's id, to Jung's archetypes, to developments like Gestalt Psycology, lots of ideas.

Hegel's zeitgeist is more like a paradigm, than a spirit (like 'spirit of the age').

Neuroscientists don't say instinct is dependent on life experience of the individual creature. Look at the fear of hawk silhouettes in battery farmed chickens that have never been outside, the fear of cucumbers by some cats (look like snakes), and the heightened awareness humans have to spider motiins in our visual field. There is clearly an interactiin between genes and instinct, unsurprisingly. How else would it be passed on?

Instinct may also relate to structures, mental and social for instance, which interact with genes. So, we know FOXP2 genes stimulate babbling in early development, and correlate with complex vocalisations among many species. But what vocalisations, songs and language develop, seems to be almost entirely down to circumstances of life.

There are certainly views that instinct can tap into intuition, to the whole brain, not just intellectual but also animal. You can see this in the psycological concept of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) which is applied to understanding exceptional sports performance, meditation, and other behaviours.

Strengths and danbers: https://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2013/11/14/post-hoc-rationalisation-reasoning-our-intuition-and-changing-our-minds/

Instinct as a 'fast' heuristic system, which is none-the-less highly sophisticated https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11468377-thinking-fast-and-slow


There are certain "innate" instincts or behaviours a human has like being able to grasp things with a hand and being able to chew. Or jumping when scared. These are basic survival instincts. We also, it is thought, have an instinct to be able to learn language.

Then there are certain things we learn an intuition for using experience. This can be explained in part with deep learning models and neural networks.

I don't think it is known, yet, how these two things fit together.


I highly recommend the phenomenological approach that you can find in Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) Austro-German philosopher. See: Nam-In Lee: "Edmund Husserls Phänomenologie der Instinkte", Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993.


Quantum mind theory , Bohm-Pribram theory of Mind and Matter , Stapp theory of quantum mind

Bohm's proposed implicate order applies both to matter and consciousness. He suggested that it could explain the relationship between them. He saw mind and matter as projections into our explicate order from the underlying implicate order.

Bohm’s theory of a mind-matter theory implies that the laws of quantum mechanics (and the Born rule) can be violated in those processes where higher order fields (including thoughts) act on the first-order quantum field. This means that human freewill(in sofar asit is possible for it to operate at the higher levels of information) can genuinely guide physical action.

Many physicist have regarded this renunciation of our effort describe nature herself as premature, and John von Neumann reformulated quantum theory as a theory of an evolving objective universe interacting with human consciousness.

Holonomic brain theory is a branch of neuroscience investigating the idea that human consciousness is formed by quantum effects in or between brain cells.

See the paper of Pribram entitled "Brain and Mathematics"






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