Instinctive thinking

Reflex action

Instinctive decisions:

The jewels of our subconscious mind!!

Every one knows that it is important to focus your attention on the problem at hand!!

It is often believed that conscious attention and logical thoughts are the only ways we can decide correctly and have a balanced life. These are concepts advocated by the greatest Philosophers of all times. A remarkable tool, however, is rather less spoken about. We seldom realise how our instincts can greatly enhance our abilities to handle situations.

This is a life-changing concept.

As I mentioned in my last post, these are the jewels in the Deeper depths of the human mind, and these are less known secrets towards success.

The power of Reflex actions

As you are reading this, your brain is deciphering the words and turning them into concepts in real time.

When you read a sentence, you do not focus on the meaning of each word and try to understand it first. The whole thing is coming out to you as a concept which you are making sense of. In other words, the procedure of reading is instinctive to you.

It is amazing to realize that most of the things which we do during the course of our day are mere instincts.

As you walk with your headphones on, you do not think about how to negotiate every turn. 

When you drive, the movements of your hands and feet are instinctive. They do not need your conscious mind to interfere.

When you go swimming, you do not have to think about moving your hands and feet in a certain way or to loosen your body and your stomach, in order to stay afloat. They happen automatically.

Instinctive decisions

Learning a new skill

When I started learning how to play the guitar, I had to force myself to remember the finger positions to be able to play the chords. It was really painful because I was not producing any music which was pleasing to the ears. It was just a mugging up exercise!! Practise had to be forced upon.

In a month or so of rigorous practice, while I was exerting myself, I was not reaching anywhere.

That, however, changed in a matter of a few days. With a bit of knowledge about the guitar and chords, my fingers started placing themselves correctly. It was as if the control was taken over by someone else back in my mind.

The control had shifted from my consciousness to the subconscious Auto-Pilot. There was little thought involved. I only had to think of the tune and that was produced. The practice sessions became immensely enjoyable. However, every time to learn a new chord, I had to force myself and practice it for a few days with rapt attention, until it sunk into my subliminal, and became an instinct.

If you were learning to walk, or swim or read a new language, you would have to pay conscious attention.

When you start learning a new skill, the more you pay attention, the better the outcome. You make fewer mistakes. Your Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain which has developed during the later stages of human evolution and is responsible for logical thinking, tells you what to do and what not to do.

All this while though, your subconscious is learning from your mistakes, and making your actions into a habit.

A little learning, however, changes all this. After your skill is rooted in your subconscious, paying more attention to it does not improve your performance, it rather hinders it. 


Imagine if you wanted to learn a new language. You would really need to pay attention to each and every word then!! When you know the language you can simply think and you will know what to say!

Analysis Paralysis: Danger of hindering your instinctive thoughts.

In his best-selling Book “How we decide”, author and psychologist Jonah Lehrer mention a couple of interesting incidents.

Jean Van de Velde, a world famous golfer was playing flawlessly till the last round of the 1999 British Open Championship Finals. He normally went under par at every hole.  He had a huge lead of 3-strokes at the eighteenth hole. He could play the worst of his career and still win that match. It was child’s play.

The next few shots could change his life forever.

Now, there are zillion things which have to be considered for a golf-swing – the wind velocity, the lay of the green, the line of the ball, the right swing posture and several other factors. Normally, for an experienced golfer, such calculations are done back in the subconscious, and it just comes on as a gut feeling when you are making the stroke.

However, Van de Velde had a lot riding on it. He started thinking of the details of his stroke and analysing it closely. He wanted it to be too perfect.

Such conscious thoughts over things that are instinctive makes you anxious. He started feeling nervous. After this, it was just a downward spiral. He took seven errant shots at the eighteenth hole and lost the British Open.

Such incidents where a conscious thought actually blocks you from performing is called choking. There have been too many upsets in the world of sports and other performing arts as a result of choking. You can Google it out.

If you are a fast typist, the words simply come out through your hand when you think them. However, if you start paying attention to your typing, think about the movement of your fingers, you will start making more mistakes.

If you drive well, it is instinctive to you. If you try concentrating your conscious mind into deciding on your actions, you will falter. 

Experimental data:

Several experiments around the world have proved that in certain situations, over-thinking leads to wrong decisions.

In a famous Strawberry Jam tasting experiment, students who were given to taste five brands of strawberry jam, without knowing their price or any other details, rated the best Jam to be the most successful brand. It gave them the most positive feelings. A good strawberry jam should make you feel good!!

However, when they were asked to analyse the reason why they like a certain brand, they ended up choosing the wrong jam, by trying to judge them according to parameters, like texture, how easily they spread, and so on. This time the best tasting jam ended almost last.

In another experiment, people who were asked to rate between five paintings, somehow liked the ones made by Monet and Van Gogh, even without knowing who the artists were. However, when people were asked to rate the reason why they liked the paintings, they ended up choosing a funny cat poster more than these works of art. Instead of listening to their instincts to judge which one made them feel good, they now focused on the subject matter, and Monet’s Haystack, felt rather boring. 


Bypassing the Pre-frontal Cortex

Do not put everything under the microscope.

If you are doing a job for some time now, it is possible that your instincts already know the job more than you can consciously figure out.

I see that in my own job every day. As the Captain of a ship often there are tough situations where numerous decisions have to be taken quickly. In my post: Quick Decisions and Instant Attention, I have discussed ways to focus your mind to pinpoint on the grave and imminent dangers.

However, many such decisions are taken by me reflexively, and they are usually more efficient than the ones taken by deliberate thinking. In fact, the decisions which come up as a ‘gut feeling’ are usually more efficient ones. Your subconscious can figure out much more than you possibly could think.

If you use your conscious reasoning, which originates in the Pre-frontal cortex of your brain, you will be mistaken. Your instinctive calls will be suppressed and you will go down that downward spiral of lost confidence.

The point I am trying to make here is –

Trust your gut! It is usually right.

I have always found this topic extremely interesting. I can write a whole book on this. Perhaps I will someday.

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