We are born with basic instincts and they can save our life. Here’s how to get better at listening to that voice in your head.
On an evening out, a man catches your eye and smiles at you. He looks pleasant and friendly, but something tells you to avoid him.
Are you just being paranoid? Or is your inner voice trying to tell you something?
We all have basic human instincts — to eat and drink, to seek shelter and to protect our young.
But what about the more sophisticated type of instinct, the voice that warns you not to trust someone, that tells you something is wrong with your health or that you should choose one path over another?
Psychologist Dr Liam Satchell is a leading expert in instincts.
He says: ‘Instinct is your brain taking a shortcut,
and telling you about important actions and reactions that you need but can’t easily turn into clear thoughts.
‘You might think someone looks a bit “off”, but can’t put your finger on why. Or you might feel unwell but not be sure exactly what’s wrong. That’s your brain picking up on details from your body and the world in a way that’s so efficient that you can’t turn those thoughts into words.’
In some circumstances, that ‘shortcut’ can save our lives. It might warn us not to open the door to a strange-looking salesperson, or avoid walking home through a park late at night.
But where do these instincts come from? And what’s their purpose?
Dr Satchell says: ‘In the simplest terms, all our basic instincts are about survival.’
Instincts fall into two categories. The first is about exploration. That’s our instinct to go towards, pause or go away when faced with potentially nice or nasty things in the world.
An example of this would be seeing something on the ground that could be a £5 note. Our instincts tell us to check it out. But getting closer, we’re not sure, it’s looking less and less like a fiver. We pause. Then on closer inspection we discover it’s a dirty tissue so we go away.
The second category is our body, which controls a lot of our thinking. Our stomach will say when we’re hungry, and our skin tells us when we’re hot or cold. We have basic instincts that are generated by our body telling us something needs changing in order for us to survive.
It seems simple, doesn’t it? Listen to your inner voice and you’ll stay safe.
So why are some of us more in tune with our instincts, while others don’t hear that inner voice and put themselves at risk?
Dr Satchell says: ‘Instincts are a great way for our brain to communicate with us. However, some people have many noisy thoughts and find it hard to tune them out and focus on simple reactive instincts.’
So how can you listen to your inner voice? Dr Satchell says it’s something we all learn with age.
He says: ‘We’re not born with a perfect understanding of who is and who isn’t dangerous. We learn. Our instincts update with our life experiences.
‘One of the most impressive things about humankind is our ability to have complex thoughts. We don’t have to rely on all our instincts all of the time because we can make more complex decisions. Some of our instincts — like prejudices — aren’t helpful, but many are.’
One of the helpful instincts we have is a feel for who might be a good or a bad person.
We pick up on all sorts of pieces of information from our environment. This can be something big, like someone shouting, or something small, such as how someone walks or moves.
Our instincts make us good at surviving, so if you ever have the feeling that you are uncomfortable or afraid, then you should listen to that voice.
Edited by Julie Cook