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Health > Mental Health > instinct


Human beings are born with powerful instincts, the most important being self-prevention. They are a complex and fascinating aspect of our nature.

When babies only a few days old are touched on the cheek or lips, they turn towards whatever is touching them, in order to bring the mouth close to the nipple, the source of food. Young birds, when they are hungry, turn to the parent bird and squeak. The nestling and the human babies are acting by instinct; they want food and they behave in certain characteristic ways in order to make the need plain. Their behaviour does not have to be learned-it is instinctive. But what instincts are and what they do is, at present, much more clearly understood than exactly how they work.


The simplest form of behaviour is a reflex action. A stimulus acts upon a nerve cell and this, through its links with other nerve cells, activates various muscles. The turning of the baby’s head at the touch of a finger is a reflex action; the baby’s impulse to find food is an instinct, a pattern of behaviour which the child ‘knows’ without having had to discover it by experience, or learn it by imitation.

It is broadly true to described instincts as inborn, set patterns of action, but some of them are more firmly set than others.

Activities described as ‘fixed action patterns’ ensure that the normal individual members of a species behave in a particular way at the right time and in the right circumstances. The first action of a mother cat, as each kitten is born, is to lick it hard in order to stimulate its circulation and breathing. She does not have to find out how to care for the new-born kittens: she is ‘programmed’ to do it, by her own nature.

Other activities, described as ‘modifiable action patterns’, can be affected by learning. Human beings, like other members of the animal world, reproduce in order to keep the species in existence-that is, they follow an inbuilt instinct. But the ways in which they choose and attract a mate in are directly affected by such things as cultural and social background and convention. The instinct to reproduce is modified. A dog will mate with the fist available bitch, but human beings acquire preferences for certain physical and psychological characteristics in a partner, which have to be satisfied, to some extent, before the ‘fixed’ part of the action pattern-the maintaining of the species through the birth of children-comes into operation.

Because some forms of instinctive behaviour are subject to modification and to the influence of experience, they are more complex. This is true even when they are followed by creatures far more primitive than man. This modification can take different forms.

In more affluent societies, families tend to be small; in poorer societies they are larger, to compensate for the much lower survival rate. If there were a real danger of the human species dying out, as a result of war, or the spread of some disease like the plague of medieval times, the instinct to bred children would gain in force, perhaps even to the point where it would eventually outweigh all other considerations.


Instinctive behaviour is a produce of evolution and its main function is to enable each species to stay alive as efficiently as possible. Human beings-and other highly developed animals- have time to acquire additional skills and safeguards through learning and experience, but this is not so much for many more primitive creatures with a short lifespan. If we had to learn how to carry out every single action in life, our progress would be very slow.

The value of instinct lies in its being inbuilt. Its effect is to produce, in normal circumstances, recognisable and predictable patterns of behaviour. This is clearly useful in preserving a species. Birdsong is a signal: it has two functions-attracting mates and warning off outsiders. It would not achieve either effect if each bird sang its own, entirely individual song, because no bird would receive this as a signal the same is true of certain kinds of human behaviour: when a baby is hungry, it cries in order to bring its mother, the provider of food, to it. The cry is a signal very easy to interpret, but if each baby had its own unique way of expressing the sensation of hunger, its chance of survival in the world would certainly be greatly diminished.


Intelligence is not the same as knowledge, talent or skill, although it may involve them. It is more the average level of a person’s ability to perceive, learn, think, solve problems and adapt. special tests have been devised to measure intelligence.

Nearly all parents are concerned about how well their children are likely to a school whether they are bring enough to go to university, get a good job or otherwise develop special abilities which will served them well in adult life.

Since this can happen in a number of ways, however, it is clear that intelligence involves many attributes, and that it is perfectly possible for someone to do well in life even if one ability-such as coping with mathematics-is poorly developed. Therefore, it is important to take note of a variety of abilities to be able to estimate how intelligent a person-especially a child-may be and how well they might deal with problematic solutions.


The first tests to measure intelligence were designed to detect children who might be too slow intellectually to profit from normal schooling. In order to do this, a selection was made of the type of problems which could be solved by the averag five-year-old, six-year-old, seven-year-old and so on, up to 16.

If a child could solve the problems solved by the average sic-year-old but not those of the average seven-year-old, he was to have a mental age of six, whatever his real age. His intelligence quotient (generally shortened to IQ) is then defined as his mental age expressed as a percentage of the intelligence normal to his physical age.


Above the age of 16, the position is different. It seems that intelligence as measure by present tests done not continue to rise much after the age of 16. However, by studying the intelligence of low and high IQ children as they grow into adults it has been possible to derive IQ measurements for adults.

The average IQ of the whole population is till taken as 100. An IQ less than 67 is regarded as mentally retarded whilst one of over 133 is considered exceptionally intelligent.


Intelligence takes many forms so the range of questions in any intelligence test varies considerably. Some are designed to measure verbal an numerical skills, then there are similarly and find the odd man out’ tests, tests of common sense abilities such as how to find one’s way out of a forest when lost, while others measure abilities such as copying a design with coloured blocks. A good intelligence test should include some test of word comprehension, word fluency, number ability, spatial relationships, memory, speed of perception and reasoning.


There are many difficulties in measuring intelligence. It is always slightly doubtful as to what extent the questions asked in a particular test measure intelligence as a whole. The questions must not be ones which can only be answered with special training and they must, if possible contain few which are merely a matter of memory rather than reasoning.

Many tests are limited by the amount of language that the child has. For example asking a child which is the odd one out of the words cello, harp, guitar, violin and drum should produce the answer ‘drum’ because the remainder are stringed instruments. However, many bright but language-restricted children answer ‘cello’ simply because they’ve never heard the word before.

Some tests may only too easily be prejudiced towards a given culture, making people from other cultural backgrounds look less intelligent. Most forms of IQ test never test ‘unusual thinking’ and none test the sort of intelligence which is needed to devise strategies, to understand how to get on with people, or to be a leader. Whether tests of these qualities should be included depends on whether they are regarded as a part of intelligence or as specific skills.


Under the age of vie a child’s intelligence is really too unevenly developed to be measured by a formal test, though it is clear that some of the qualities that will later be measured in such a test start developing at a very early age.

About half of an adult’s perceptual speed is developed by the age of seven, half of his or her reasoning ability by 9, of verbal comprehension by 11 and of verbal fluency by 14.

The growth of intelligence is more by less constant during school years but by the age of 16 and the growth rate begins to tail off slightly and by about 26 has virtually reached its peak. This is not to say that people can learn nothing new after this age, but, on average, few new abilities are acquired.

The extent to which ability may decline with increasing age depends very much on the person and on what ability is being considered. People who retain their physical health and continue to engage in stimulating active, whether in work or as a pastime, shoe little deterioration in their intellectual abilities until well into old age.


Opinions differ about whether or not creative talent is part of intelligence for the two often seem to go together. When intelligence is low, creativity is seldom present; when intelligence is high, however creativity is sometimes present and sometimes not. The situation seems to be that where artistic people are nearly always intelligent, intelligent people are not always artistic.


Although intelligence is to a considerable degree inherited, conditions of upbringing can make the best use of the intellectual qualities that a child is born with. Good prenatal and postnatal nutrition, an intellectually stimulating and emotionally secure home will make the most of what is intellectually inherited.

Much can be done to increase a child’s intellectual standing by ensuring that at an early age he or she has plenty of things about which will stimulate the mind. Instructive toys, new sights, new sounds, new experiences - in fact any of the things which a pre-school group tries to provide - will all help to develop the child’s ability.

The pre-school years are very important, for it has been found that the schooling which children receive a little later can never make up for what the parents might have done for them earlier. As one educationalist put it ‘education cannot compensate for society and that really means parents!’

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