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Instincts

When I need something from my bag, I instinctually know where to find it.

I know this because I’ve packed and unpacked and reached into that bag hundreds of times. When I first got the bag, this was not the case. When I first got the back, my bag-instincts weren’t yet developed.

That’s the thing with instincts: they’re weak unless we train them. After packing and unpacking and reaching into the thing over and over again, my bag-instincts grew stronger. The part of my brain that just ‘knows’ where everything is without me having to think about it became burly.

Some instincts, on the other hand, come prepackaged with our genes, and there are others we pick up over the years because of the environment we grow up in. But everything else requires work to develop.

Even the instincts we’re born with are worth noting and investigating. Prejudice, for example, is an instinct. We’re born understanding that we should be wary of things that are different from us; things that are outside of our experience.

The only way to train ourselves away from such a response is to experience more, to be exposed to many different sorts of people and ideas and places and things. This helps reshape the instinct so that it raises the hairs on our necks and grants a sense of unease only when there’s truly something to worry about.

We also have instincts that keep us from achieving our goals.

Consider the innate desire to relax and unwind after a hard day’s work, even though we may have plenty of energy left, and plenty of desire to reach for some new height.

That instinct came from somewhere — some primal human survival tactic to stockpile energy, in case we have to run away or fight — but it can be shifted to work for you, rather than against you. You can train your instincts to perk up at the idea of certain types of work, for example, or to help you feel revitalized after a specific activity (exercise, perhaps).

But it takes work to train your instincts, and that’s part of why most people never do. It requires a conscious sense of direction, and tons of repetition.

Many people view their instincts as something spiritual or otherworldly, which also doesn’t help. “I don’t know why I feel this way, and therefore I must do as I feel, unthinkingly” is a terrible perspective if you want your instincts to work for you rather than the other way around.

There’s no hocus-pocus involved with instincts: they’re an amalgamation of beautiful, intricate, gee-whiz brain science that ties together what you know and what you’re sensing.

Instincts leave your conscious brain out of the equation because that’s the most efficient way to convey such information when you need to compute quickly and sense what’s happening without fully understanding in a way you can verbalize.

Intentional, thoughtful development of your instincts allows you to train yourself to be more passively aware of your surroundings. It can help you be more aware of real dangers, rather than the unfamiliar. They can also help you to reach into your bag and know, subconsciously, where all your stuff is.