Daily Archives: March 20, 2010

Human instincts, survival-related and otherwise


Some people seem terrified of the idea that human beings have instincts. I don’t hold that view. I find human instincts fascinating — the way we just know things, or do things, based on things that are built into us very deeply. I don’t mean to say that all humans have identical instincts, just that we all have them.

I have terrible body awareness. I often can’t locate pain at all, and if I do it’s often because someone has sat down and played twenty questions with me for an hour or longer. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m in pain, I just notice the responses to it and fail to connect the dots.

Which makes it astounding to me when instincts related to health or body awareness give me information out of the blue that I can’t tie to any conscious sensation.

Twice in my life I have been aware of an organ malfunction that could be life threatening if not caught and treated. The information appeared quietly and with great clarity. It was not accompanied by fear or any other emotion. The information consisted of the ideas, “Something is wrong with one of my organs. If nothing is done, I will eventually die.” This was accompanied by frequent thoughts of death — not anxious or depressed thoughts, but “hello you need to be aware of this” thoughts. In fact the lack of emotion and the quiet clarity of the information was astounding.

The problem was that neither situation showed me which organ was having problems. Luckily, in both instances someone figured out what was wrong. In one case my gallbladder had completely failed after producing two large stones (nobody had told me that early onset gallbladder disease ran in my family for generations among the women). In the other case, a pulmonologist who eventually suspected my main problem wasn’t asthma anymore, did an exhaustive set of tests until a CT scan showed a form of lung damage that is progressive and fatal if not treated (and is still more dangerous than asthma if treated, but can be managed well with regular breathing treatments).

In both cases the instinctual warning bleep stopped bleeping at me after treatment (surgery in the first case and twice-daily breathing treatments in the second).

In other cases (one in particular stands out in my memory) I have gotten a slightly different warning bleep. Again, there was no emotion attached, just quiet certainty. Despite the fact that the warning was more urgent: “You are in immediate danger of death if you don’t do something right away.” I know it’s happened more than once but the only time I can remember right now happened a couple years ago. I had just gotten back from the emergency room where I’d been treated for an impacted bowel movement and released. This was not the first or the last time this had happened. I had managed to pass an enormous stool that had blocked both my bowels and my bladder. I had been catheterized. And these sorts of things, when they had happened before, had been the beginning of the end of the problem.

But this time was different. The warning bleeps started off by telling me that under no circumstances should I be left alone. So I told someone that I didn’t know why but I needed someone to be there constantly after I got home. An hour later, the warning bleep told me I would die without assistance. I was about to tell this to the person with me when I collapsed (I could still walk part time back then) and started vomiting. The person with me called 911 and by the time I got to the hospital I was delirious and hallucinating while seeming to only half of the time be conscious. The blockage had started poisoning me and I ended up admitted to the hospital until the danger was over.

Those sorts of instincts make sense to me. It makes sense for a body to have a built in warning system. I have spoken to others with chronic health conditions or who had been in life threatening situations who know all about these warning bleeps. People who were at risk of hypothermia whose hallucinations told them not to go to sleep no matter what. People who had been hit by cars and despite confusion from concussions or blood loss, had instincts that told them not to move for any reason. This stuff makes sense even though it is still in the realm of cool and amazing, especially amazing in those who otherwise lack body awareness.

But the one that is happening to me right now seems outright strange. I can’t figure out why it would be an important instinct. My menstrual periods stopped over a year ago. The only way for me to have a period is to induce it with hormones, and even then it’s not the super-heavy kind normally expected after a seven-month break.

The weird part? I’ve skipped a period or two before. That’s not weird. What’s weird is that even after I’d only skipped a month, I knew for certain that it wasn’t coming back without intervention. My crotch area doesn’t feel any different from normal, I have no idea how I know this. But I still know that. It’s an absolute certainty in my head that I will not be having any non-induced periods anytime soon.

To be honest, I’m really happy about this. I almost never get migraines anymore, when before they happened all the time. My moods are totally stable. I don’t have to deal with the hygiene stuff. I wasn’t planning on having kids. There are risks to not having a period but if I have one induced only every six months I’m safe.

I just don’t understand the purpose of this instinct. Knowing my periods have stopped coming naturally, doesn’t seem to save my life. It does make me happy, but that doesn’t seem like a reason for this kind of detail in an instinct. So to me this is the strangest of all the body-related instincts I’ve ever had.