Estimated Read Time: 6 Minutes
When we think of instinct, what comes to mind? Intrinsically, I am reminded of animals. Their behaviour is ingrained into their very being. Birds seem to have their own built-in global positioning system which allows them to navigate thousands of miles with acute precision, every year. Just after a foal is born, it lays sprawled on the floor, seemingly incapable of using their legs. However, moments later and with some encouragement from the baby horse’s mother, it is able to stand, walk and nurse.
Whenever we encounter a situation we have never been in before, how does it usually go? You pick up a tennis racket, which you’ve never swung before and your movements feel sluggishly awkward. Your body seems to move in opposition with the goal you have in mind. Eventually, through repetition, experience and gaining confidence, you’re able to control the racket and ball without even thinking about it.
We can see how automated our bodies can be when we play sports. Whatever the game may be, you are following a set of rules to accomplish the simple goal of ‘winning’.
While playing sports, it is easy to get lost in the game as you are following defined rules so your body and mind will work within these parameters. Playing the game of life is a bit different, requiring you to adapt to momentary situations, on a larger scale. Our behaviour can be conditioned to follow defined responses; which makes me wonder, how in control of ourselves are we?
Everything is Automated
If you have taken the time to observe your inner body, you’ll notice a few things. First off, whenever you watch your breath, you feel yourself switch from breathing automatically, to controlling it. You’ll be able to control the rhythm, the amount of air that comes in and how long you hold the air. But, as soon as you stop being aware of your breath, it just carries on.
Imagine how exhausting it’d be to have to consciously remember to breathe? Leaves me breathless just thinking about it!
Your brain and organs are functioning by themselves. You are not able to think about your heart and control the amount of blood which is pumped. This is dependent on your physical condition, your body will adapt to its environment to survive.
Even language is understood by the brain without you having to do anything. You’ll hear words which your brain will interpret the meaning and before you know it, the conversation is over. Most of the time, it won’t be until after you come out of a conversation that you start to reflect over what happened to see what you think about it.
A big thing I’ve noticed myself do is be reminded by any past experience/thought by some sort of association or cue. For example, walking on a familiar route, memories will pop up of when I’ve walked along that path before. This happens with smells, textures, words, songs, sights, people etc. It’s like your brain is a complex search engine in which it’ll bring up ‘results’ as memories, feelings or thoughts. You don’t have control on what will be the ‘top hits’, this is dependant on what had that most impact on you previously.
All behaviour and skills are automated. Walking, running, driving, swimming, typing, riding a bike, everything you can think of, just… happens.
What Real Control Do We have?
As self-perceptive humans, it is easy to forget we are also animals. The body and mind can be conditioned to act in a certain way, but it doesn’t mean behaviour is set in stone. So, how do we exhibit control and not act in an undesirable way?
In a study by Lauren Leotti, Sheena Iyengar and Kevin Ochsner titled Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control, individuals exercise control through their choices.
Choices can be complex (such as what university to attend) but also includes basic perceptual decisions which you would encounter on a daily basis (deciding where to focus your attention in the visual field). Choice will reinforce one’s belief in how capable they are of successfully producing results, thus creating a perception of control or ‘self-efficacy’.
Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to exert control over their environment and to act as an agent capable of producing the results they desire. It can be reinforced or damaged by how people will anticipate a situation to go and what occurs.
People will need to put themselves in situations where they feel in control to foster their self-efficacy. Individuals with little experience of acting as an ‘effective agent’ will likely have little belief in their ability to produce results, leading to feelings of helplessness and depression.
Humans and other animals demonstrate a preference for choice over non-choice. It has been found that when deciding between two options, we all prefer the option that leads to a second choice over one that does not, even though the expected value of both options is the same and making a second choice will require an expenditure of energy.
This doesn’t really make sense but if we consider being able to choose in and of itself as a rewarding experience, choice has a big importance in defining our perception of control and self.
Removal of choice can be very stressful. I am reminded of this often as I work as a part-time carer for kids with autism. I work with one child who is non verbal (unable to speak or communicate except sign for food). During a bus journey, he kept trying to get up from his seat but the other carer and I had to keep putting him back in his seat, taking away his choice of standing. It was for his own safety but he started to become restless. We decided to leave the bus and then he started to cry, attack himself and us. Anyone who feels like they are being forced to do something will become reluctant and experience negative emotions.
What is interesting about behaviour is how it can be conditioned. If you act a certain way which leads to a negative response, you’re going to actively avoid being that way again. For the most part, that is a helpful ‘error message’ to keep you alive, like avoiding hot objects. However, people and society can drum into you conditioned responses you might not want.
Parents could have a fear for animals which they pass on to you unconsciously. When you encounter a dog, you’d have no control over the fear. In this scenario, you’re losing your choice on how to feel about dogs based on previous experience. In every situation we face, we are under no obligation to behave the same way we have before. Don’t know about you guys, but I love animals, I’d hate to be afraid of them!
“The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.”– Jim Morrison
Leotti and colleagues explain choice as being adaptive for survival and how much control people feel they have over their environment can affect an individual’s well being. They conclude in stating our desire for control is not something we acquire through learning, but is something innate in us all. We are born to choose.
I recommend having a read over the article, it is a fascinating topic. I merely touched on the subject but Leotti and colleagues look into the science behind choice from a biological basis in detail.
We May Be Animals, But We’re Different
Stating the absolute obvious, we’re pretty fucking special. Just like all other animals, our bodies and instincts are wired a certain way. There is no changing that. However, choice is what defines our species.
Remind yourself that you are freely able to choose the path you walk and how you react to life. We may not have control of what happens around us but we do have the ability to control our perception and reaction. Things that happen in life are neither good or bad, it is your perception which gives events these values which will power your reaction.
People who have not been given the opportunities to foster their self-efficacy will have low self-esteem and confidence in dealing with their choices, looking outwardly for guidance where it all starts within. It takes awareness of one’s behaviour and how it is impacting themselves, the people around them and the world to have full control.
I’ve enjoyed writing about this topic, initially I had no idea what I was writing about. I was letting the words just appear on the screen in front of me but slowly this article transformed into writing about something that always troubled me. I think there is a mixture of blame to my upbringing, experiences and self to the lack of control I felt in my life. I was living inside of my assumptions of how things would turn out and never trusting if I was ‘doing it right’. There is no right way! I wish to walk my own path, in control of my choices and unbridled by my conditioning. It all starts today, now, in this moment, this very second that you start trusting your own instincts.
How in control of your life are you? Have you let your choices be made by others or do you always stick to your guns? Leave a comment, sharing your experience can help another!
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Sending peace and love through the 4th Dimension 😉
ADR – One Human