The notion of instinct makes one think of raw, basic impulses, of the necessary choice between fight and flight, and essentially of survival. We need, however, to consider that some feelings or thoughts we attribute to our instincts might in fact be learned constructs, knowledge we've been socialised into, as we were taught whom to fear, and how to behave. The important question is: how can we account of various clashes between nurture and nature?

Portrait With Scorpion (Open Eyes), 2005 by Marina Abramović.

Portrait With Scorpion (Open Eyes), 2005 by Marina Abramović.

In order to function properly, democratic societies regulate their citizens with conventions and hierarchies firmly put in place, which need to be respected as a precondition for acceptance. In some communities, children are taught from early school years to obey, respect, and sometimes even fear: their peers, their teachers, or their parents. This early encounter with norms and customs masked as social necessities form individuals´ subjectivity, define their social role and lead their actions as adults. In many cultures, respect for the elderly comes as natural as fear of the dark: people feel it, not really remembering when they learned they should. This is an example of how culturally defined practices can be disguised as elemental, instinctive identity traits.

Performance piece titled Shoot, 1971 by Chris Burden.

Performance piece titled Shoot, 1971 by Chris Burden.

The reverse of this is also true, to some extent. The purpose of instinct is to protect us, to keep us safe from nature and from other dangers. The genes of the weak disappear, courtesy of natural selection, and consequently we now recognise strength as a socially desirable feature. The same goes for other individual characteristics which have been absorbed into culture: notions of masculinity, standards of feminine beauty, or monogamy can be traced back to residues of genetic information, selected during millennia of survival.

Instinct is the adrenaline rush during an escape, it is the goose bumps and raised arm hair when facing danger. Instinct is engraved in our embodied selves, as much as it permeates our societies. In some communities, people are taught to fear the law, leading to corporeal responses, such as a raised heart rate when innocently passing a parked police car. Prejudice is also taught, on the basis of fear of danger: many people, for instance, have an instinct to cross the street, when in close proximity to an individual who meets the definition of danger they learned. Who knew that our most primary armour could be turned into something that society want us to feel, in order to contain us and channel our fear, in unnecessary situations, for the sake of reproducing norms and satisfying cultural heritage? 

Plumb Bob, 1973 by Robert Kinmont.

Plumb Bob, 1973 by Robert Kinmont.

It can be particularly revealing to be aware of these two dimensions of instinct. On the one hand, instinct still keeps us safe, by dictating reactions to the outside world: we fear death, we stay away from fire, and we use sharp objects with care. On the other hand, we internalise cultural norms as instinctive responses, forgetting to ask whether they are actually beneficial to our survival: we fear strangers, we often dislike foreigners, we avoid the different, and we reject the deviant. It might just be that by attempting to preserve our integrity and identity at these costs, we are, in fact, exposing ourselves to new kinds of danger.

Words: Abbie Dodson

Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu