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.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

14 responses »

  1. I think in this case your body needs you to be super aware that this function is no longer automatic so that you can arrange the 6 month induced period which is necessary for your bodies well being. It also allows you to mentally adapt to the concept of not having children.
    Both of those are important adaptions for your physical and mental health.

    I think instincts and intuitions are sometimes life saving mechanisms and sometimes just very instructional. Learning to trust these when they are so seldom talked about takes courage in the beginning. The more we listen and learn the easier it is to recognize them.

    Kind of related and fascinating to me are the different “old memories” that come with different dog breeds that are not learned but are there accessible…fully available chunks of knowledge inherited and not taught. For instance our 1/2 Australian Shepherd knew instinctively how to herd a goat and guard a gate the instant it was needed.

  2. This reminds me of the time when my instincts saved my life. I was in the shop and a tool chest, one of those huge floor standing ones tipped over on me (out of my own stupidity, but that’s another story). It had a big huge bottom section and a smaller top chest attached to the top.

    My instincts told me, very very calmly and matter-of-factly like you described, to duck and cover against the toolchest rather than trying to run away. Had I run, I would have severed my back or had my head crushed by the top unit.

    Scary, but kind of cool.

  3. Based on your past experience with these intuitions, I’d be more concerned about this. As far as I know, menses stopping for no apparent reason is quite unusual. I think your body might be telling you “something is stopping your menses” which means something is working differently, possibly your hormones but maybe something else is wrong? I don’t know, but it’s awesome that you’re so in touch with your instincts. I hope this doesn’t mean something bad is going on inside you. I don’t mean to concern you, just to suggest continuing to pay attention to this and to your body and hopefully you notice if anything else weird is about to happen.
    Or maybe you’ve immaculately conceived the Christ child.

  4. Yeah. My doctor and GYN both said that this is actually a pretty common phenomenon and that they’ll only look into causes if I develop other symptoms or the period doesn’t come back after the end of a 10-day course of progesterone. They said since I don’t get a huge period from hell even after six months it’s probably just a combination of two fairly common things (something I don’t remember, and premature menopause — the last one being because if it were just the other thing I would be going through a pad an hour once the periods were induced).

  5. Ok that makes sense – with insulin resistance tissue still builds up at a normal pace.

    BTW “immaculate conception” refers to being conceived without original sin, not being conceived without sex.

  6. I love hearing about these experiences, because I’m fascinated by the ways that our bodies talk to us. I’ve never had an episode like you describe, but perhaps that’s because I haven’t had any truly life-threatening conditions. In general, I’m super conscious of what’s going on with my system, but it often leaves me with a great lack of clarity, because all the sensations can be overwhelming, and can take me hours, days, months, or even years to sort out.

    One area in which I seem to have the kind of instinctual knowing you describe is with people who put off a certain kind of bad energy. I can always spot a psychologically or physically dangerous person. The minute he/she walks into a room, a little voice in my head says, “Get as far away from this person as possible.” It’s very clear, and there is never any doubt involved. Meanwhile, everyone else is acting like everything is fine, and talking about how wonderful the person is, and then years later, when they find out that the person was scum all along, they all run around crying, “How could we have known? How could we have known?”

    If they’d have asked me, I’d have told them it was obvious.

  7. Rachel: I have that kind too. Even down to a fair bit of detail as to what kind of vileness will be there. The main problem I have is that it took me a long while to work out the proper response to that instinct, and even longer to figure out I was allowed to choose who I interact with.

    Which has left me in many situations sitting there realizing how evil someone was, panicking, but either not going anywhere, or going towards them rather than away from them. And then later, after I found myself repeatedly victimized, going “Why didn’t I run at the first sign?”

    I suspect part of that has to do with my natural passivity and part of it has to do with having been “worked on” by a few sociopaths and other such people so as to present an easier target for them.

    But I have also had many experiences where I noticed someone was a truly evil person, others didn’t notice, and when the shit hit the fan I was the only one who saw it coming even though I also didn’t move out of the way. And was utterly astonished by “But she seemed so nice…” when I had never seen even a hint of niceness from the person at all.

    I suspect I will have better experiences now that I am aware to move out of the way. But there’s a chance that my brain still has traps set in it that I’m unaware of. (Some people like that condition their targets to make it easier for the next abuser, bully, or sociopath who comes along. And then the next one widens the hole for the next one to enter through. Etc. That’s been part of my problem in life is learning to disarm the traps and close the holes.)

    The rest of my vulnerability to this stuff seems to come from something I’ve been meaning to write about, although I hadn’t thought of this context. I really, despite how it’s seemed now and then, have spent most of my life as if I was floating underwater and being moved about by various currents rather than doing much moving on my own (which is a theme in an unpublished poem-or-something I’ve written). I’ve only discovered recently some very basic concepts that other people pick up much earlier, or even seem to be born with. One of those is that I’m allowed to choose my own friends. I used to think I had to put up with whoever showed up, and even when I managed to reject some people it was never forceful or with a sense that I had any right to.

    The thing that got me thinking about it tonight was that a little girl in one of my classes as a young (5ish) kid had chopped her hair off in an attempt to seem like Cyndi Lauper. And acts like that were miles over my head at that time. It would never have occurred to me to do something like that on a huge number of levels (not least of which was that it required a certain understanding of the world and my relation to it and agency within it that didn’t exist for me). I mean there were a few things I insisted on doing but there was something much simpler about it.

    I’d go on more but maybe I ought to put it in a post instead of tangenting here. (Goes off to find a text editor.)

  8. I never really thought of this stuff as instinct, more like a noticing of patterns ans signs and sensations that is either not conscious or not entirely conscious.

    It doesn’t really happen to me with body stuff, but it happens in other areas. It is interesting, and occasionally it really amazes me.

    It also seems to be how I pick a lot of stuff up and know how to do it: not (entirely) consciously.(For example, in the areas of taking care of plants and baking). Which also means I’m at a loss when other people want to know how I do it. Though I guess in these areas people might refer to it as a talent.

  9. Amanda, I’ve had the same experience of being able to scope people out, but not always knowing how to act on the information, and not always feeling permitted to act on it. Growing up in a situation of abuse, I learned passivity and helplessness very early, and it felt dangerous to take up any space at all. It’s been a long, long process of deconstructing all the old scripts and realizing that I can move in any direction I want, I can be as big and loud as I want, I can keep bullies away from me, I do not have to engage every person who wants to engage me, and I do not have to befriend every person who shows up. These are all things I learn over and over again, but with every iteration, the new behaviors and modes of thought become more familiar, and I feel more empowered to apply them to new situations.

    I’ve known a number of autistic people who are empaths–who feel everything going on in a room of people when they first enter. I have this experience in any group of people; it’s as though all the emotional vectors go through me. My guess is that I’m reading a ton of nonverbals and hearing a ton of language, but can’t parse or prioritize it, so it all just comes through unfiltered. If there is a dangerous person in a room, or if the group itself feels dangerous in any way, I will know it.

  10. Yeah. Pretty much if I have language turned off, I can map out the social dynamics of a room in an instant. I described that in this post and in comments awhile back and then someone started going around saying I claimed to be clairvoyant (well that person was one of the last people I ever ignored a warning signal from… talking to them the first time felt like being knocked over by a blast of pure hate even when they tried to sound nice). But I’m not describing clairvoyance, I’m describing what I suspect is a purely non-language bunch of information being processed into patterns that I can recognize. And I think some of the warning signals I get are because as someone who had been the target of bullies and sociopaths, I learned the patterns as a survival thing.

    I know nothing about the kind of politics that involve Congress and so on and have a friend who studies it. And she once had me turn off language and watch whoever she pointed out on CSPAN. And my assessments of these people usually matched up with hers even though mine were purely through tone and movement and hers were purely through studying their words and careers.

    And I once had a social worker who was a terrible predatory person. I was wary of her on sight. Another autistic person I knew was wary of her just hearing her voice on the phone. All the nonautistic people I knew never suspected a thing until they saw her ruthlessly hurting and manipulating people.

    I also suspect based on talking to nonautistic people that whatever body language I pick up on is different from what they pick up on. My theory is that “charming sociopath” types, learn to manipulate only the parts of their body language that most people can read easily. Since I don’t read that part easily, I’m not often fooled, I’m seeing the part of them they haven’t thought to hide.

  11. Pingback: Abilities, and burnout « Urocyon's Meanderings

  12. I get some instincts like that, particularly concerning dangerous or manipulative people. I’ve also found the opposite- every NT person I knew hated this one teacher, but my instincts told me he was a smart, good teacher- not a bad or cruel person. I also have been in situations where my instincts have very clearly told me to do something that saved me from serious injury- for instance, one time I was violently ill and my instincts told me to get as warm as possible and drink as much water as I could. I found out later that if I hadn’t kept drinking water I could have ended up severely- dangerously- dehydrated.

  13. I strongly suspect that some of my supposedly obsessive-compulsive thoughts/behaviours are actually along these lines. If I sometimes mustn’t move, or open my mouth, for a certain period of time, I suspect there are physical reasons. When these impulses are really strong and frequent/steady, it makes me want to go to a doctor but I don’t know what I’d say. Whatever it is isn’t urgent, more likely the sort of thing that one wants to catch early but will eventually produce physical evidence.

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