The New York Times recently reported on what it called a “a growing body of work suggesting that the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.”
That is, instinct: knowing something’s wrong before you know exactly what the problem is.
The studies include some finding changes in brain chemistry. Researchers also note that experience plays a role, and they seem to have concluded that some people are naturally better at this than others. So far they haven’t found a way to train instinct, according to The Times story.
While it may be true that some people are naturally better at processing information on the instinctive level than others – I’m reserving judgment on that point until there are more studies – instinct is something that we all have and can use.
Of course, experience matters. Your instincts will not work as well in new places or new situations, because you don’t know how things are supposed to be. But when you’re on familiar ground, the item or person that’s out of place will register, even if you don’t consciously notice it.
Acting on your instinct can make all the difference. The Times story gives an account of how a sergeant’s instincts saved his squad from a bomb.
In his excellent self defense book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker spends a lot of time on instinct. His advice: When your instinct tells you something’s wrong, act on it.
Instinct isn’t panic. In fact, it’s easier to use your instincts when you’re calm. And, of course, you have to be paying attention. But it pays off all the time.
I notice my own use of instinct the most when I’m driving. I can almost always tell when a another driver is going to do something dumb or dangerous, like not stop when they’re supposed to or cut in when there really isn’t enough room. I give those drivers a little extra space and time.
The key to using instinct is to act on it immediately. You can figure out what gave you the clue later.
For those of us who like to write military or adventure stories, those scientific studies on soldiers’ instincts provide us with good background material. After all, warriors acting on instinct despite orders to the contrary – or ignoring an instinctive warning, with disastrous results – provide great plot twists.
I’ve always had an instinct that instinct matters. And now science is backing me up!
Nancy Jane’s flash fiction this week is “Learning to Love Your Inner Virago.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.
Check out The Nancy Jane Moore Bookshelf for more stories.