Primal Instincts: Your Natural Informant And How to Sharpen It

Civilization and modernity have taken a lot away from humanity, but there seems to be something that has stuck – our primal instincts.

We use and also hear people use the word ‘instincts’ every other time but we seldom hear of primal instincts. What does it mean and does it concern you?

In this post, basic, animal, original, and initial instincts mean the same thing.

This post is going to sear through the ‘instinct’ kingdom, bringing all the vague meanings of the word and its cousins to clarity, including examples both in humans and animals.

Many times, we try to express our thoughts but because we lack the appropriate words, most thoughts and meanings are lost in expression.

Before we know what, primal instinct is, it’s good to know exactly what instinct is.

This is a relatively long post; you might need to use the table of contents to navigate.

What are Instincts?

Instincts are the expression of congenital (inborn) biological abilities or behaviours in response to stimulus, mostly in the absence of prior learning or experience.

A lot of people interchange instinct and the concept of intuition even though they are two different words with different meanings.

We have a comprehensive post on the differences between instinct and intuition if you want to know.

This means that the abilities or behaviours humans or animals exhibit that are not learned are instinctive.

When animals look for their mother’s breast to suckle a few minutes after they are born is a classic example of basic instincts.

It is believed that instincts are driven by hormones.

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.”

-Agatha Christie-

There are many controversies over the meaning and what could be classified as instincts or not.

In fact, there are people who don’t believe it exists, instead, they talk about drives and motivations.

But psychological science shows it exists and can actually be measured.

Primal Instincts Meaning

Primal instincts are the basic, earliest, or core instincts from which other instincts developed.

It manifested in our earliest cavemen ancestors which aided them to survive the changing world.

They are the oldest motivators of behaviours in animals and humans which is behind our abilities to react to potential dangers to avoid harm and preserve our lives.

It is responsible for the tendency to move away from danger, or move towards or developing life-preserving, protecting, or sustaining characteristics.

These core instincts are found anywhere there is life, including animals and plants.

Though we might not say plants have instincts, if you consider the basic meaning of instincts, you my reader might consider them to have these life-saving traits.

Related: Why Women’s Intuition Is More Powerful Than That Of Men

Primal instinct is not just about behaviour alone, but the overall details of the living creature.

They are implemented by plants through nutrition and reaction to stimuli.

For instance, there are plants that can’t do well without sunlight. When they find themselves in shady places, they bend toward the light to get a chance to live. That’s self-preservation behaviour.

So, it’s safe to say that all living things – animals, plants, viruses, fungi all love to live, eat and reproduce which are the basis of original instincts.

Animals depend on primal instincts in all their activities and entire lives to survive while humans use the same reasoning.

Primal Instincts in Animals

Animals showing primal instincts by suckling

Animal instincts are fixed behaviours embedded in the animal DNA and do not require learning or experience to manifest.

It is the primal instincts in animals that direct their behaviours automatically to help them live and survive.

Unlike the human instincts that keep evolving, animal instincts seem to be constant and fixed and continue to be.

These instincts are expressed in every behaviour of animals including migration in the case of the monarch butterfly, some birds, and other animals.

Sexual interest in a particular time of the year or season, and baby turtles gravitating towards the sea after hatching are all instances of primal instincts in animals.

Importance of Animal Instincts

Animal instincts are essential for the survival of animals and their continued existence through the centuries.

Indirectly, it sustains the food chain which as well is the most important mainstay for all living organisms.

These basic instincts help animals survive and thrive as it serves as a warning system that instructs animals about impending dangers while also helping predators find food.

It also serves to control the maternal instincts in animals to care for their young, prepare and survive weather changes and look for food.

Related: Fear Propaganda: How It is Used For Psychological Manipulations

Animal Instincts Examples

Research has shown that many animals could match the intelligence of man going by what intelligence actually means and not by what we humans think.

They have sensory and motor abilities, night vision, and other animal instincts that supersede those of man.

Here are some examples of primal instincts peculiar to animals:

  • Fishes do not learn how to swim and baby goats do not learn how to suckle as earlier described
  • Animals in the wild apply instincts to know edible and nourishing plants
  • So are beavers so good at building their dams without prior experience? Those are animal instincts
  • Dogs can detect cancer and diabetes and can even signal the onset of heart attacks
  • Elephants, giraffes, whales, and others communicate with low-frequency sounds over long distances
  • Shaking off the water by dogs when drenched
  • Territorial defense and marking
  • Prey-predator relationship
  • Aggressive protection of newborn
  • Mating rituals
  • Nest building
  • Hunting techniques

All animal species exhibit instinctive behaviors. In creatures with lesser levels of intelligence, a greater significance of behaviors is typically natural.

Primal Instincts in Humans

Instincts in animals and humans work quite in the same fashion. The difference is humans are able to direct and control theirs with reasoning.

Human behaviours are made up of many unconscious reflexes and reactions that are quick and automatic.

These instincts control our every basic reaction that we unconsciously react to them.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees humans have primal instincts. There is controversy surrounding primal instincts in humans.

This has led to arguments, papers, and unending research on the subject.

In animals, as seen above, instincts are undeniable as their behaviours are prompted by their needs.

If you search the net, you are going to get varied opinions about instincts, and the more you search the more confused you might become if you do not know the basic primal instincts and how they work.

Do Humans Have Instincts?

In humans, reflexes represent behaviours prompted by primal instincts. When the nipple is placed in the mouth of a baby, he suckles it without learning and seeks it out the next time.

The basic instincts are interwoven in every facet of our lives and it is hard to identify genuinely the primal instincts from the acquired ones.

Good enough, there are some unmistakable behaviours that are present in newborns long before they have to acquire enough experience to consciously execute reactions on their own.

RELATED: Listening to Your Intuition in Relationships

These behaviours are prompt responses to immediate needs and they need no knowledge or learning to manifest them. This is original instincts in action.

To make it clearer, there is also a considerable number of reactions that are familiar to adult humans which we unconsciously manifest without any effort.

With the above, we can be able to form a list of the primal instincts that guide us, humans, to navigate life.

Newborns are going to be our guide in identifying these instincts in humans.

Human Instincts in Newborns

In newborns, consciousness is well present but most of their reactions are instinctive.

They have natural instincts or reflexes that serve as survival or protective behaviours which aid them to thrive.

Babies are fully dependent on caregivers for survival as they are absolutely helpless.

Their primal instincts can be observed in startling in response to a sharp noise, suckling of their hands in replica to the suckling of the breast.

These reflexes would continue until they are old enough to control their reactions to them and grow more control over their motor skills.

Common primal instincts in babies include:

  • Moro reflex: Also called the startle reflex. Babies respond to sharp loud noises by startling. This is a protective instinct in action. In adults, this is a quick rush of adrenaline in ready for any eventuality.
  • Sucking reflex: The sucking reflex is the baby’s tendency to pull anything within reach to his lips. They also tend to grope for nipples when in their mother’s arms. 
  • Tonic neck reflex: When babies are not hungry, they turn their heads away in rejection of breast milk offered to them.
  • Grasp reflex: Grasping is a common reflex in babies. They tend to grasp at anything graspable and bring them toward their mouth.
  • Stepping reflex: Babies try to take steps when they put their feet on the ground. It is a curious instinct that is not learned. You see them move their feet in a walking motion.

These are some of the instinctive behaivours observable in the earliest lives of humans and are replaced by appropriate other responses as they grow.

Fear, anger, crying, shyness and sociability, curiosity, jealousy and envy, sexual instincts, play, imitation, or mimicry are some of the accompanying instincts.

Humans actually think about their problems and explore intelligent ways to alleviate them.

Related: How To Trigger A Man’s Hero Instincts To Do More

The Early Humans

Humans lived like animals in the wild and survived by primal instincts. Just as animals are able to find out which leaves and tubers are edible and nourishing, humans did the same.

Humans roamed the plains and forests hunting animals and finding food for survival.

They overcame cold and the harshest of weather by building makeshift houses and making protective coverings for their body.

They formed tools that aided them to achieve success in hunting, making fire, cooking, and other live-aiding activities.

However, humans have evolved to outgrow these primal instincts, or we can say they are dormant and we do not have any need for them anymore, but that does not mean we don’t have them.

Assuming humans were to go back to the stone age, the latent survival instincts would immediately kick in to replace whatever overlaying behaviour we have acquired over the centuries.

“You can take humans out of stone age, but you can’t take stone age out of humans


Technology seems to have taken away some of our original instincts, but they are still very much ready when the need arises.

The human primal instincts are strongly hinged on survival and continuity of life.

For instance, fear is an instinctive emotional response to dangerous situations that cause us to run and protect ourselves.

Instinctive behaviours like greed, anger, love, and fight or flight have stayed with us and would stick around for a long time.

Amidst the reasoning and thoughts of humans to find solutions to their problems, every human behaviour is not driven by primal instincts.

Related: Exploring The Primal Instincts Of Survival In the Modern Day

All Human Behaviours not Driven by Primal Instincts

The instinct theory of behaviour has limitations and has been continuously attacked because it does not take care of all human behaviours.

One fundamental criticism is that not every behavior can be explained by instincts. For instance, laughter might not be regarded as an instinct.

Or do we laugh because we picked it up from our parents when we were young? Additionally, learning to drive takes years of practice, so it is not an instinct.

But one can instinctively match breaks, or unconsciously change gears according to the intuition of the manual vehicle. This is a learned instinct.

Also, any behaviour exhibited after rational thought is not instinctive behaviour.

The Instinct Theory of Motivation

Human behaviours are hard-wired through initial instincts that are genetically embedded to give us the ability to navigate life dangers and cope with changing environmental factors.

It means that people are programmed to do what they do by evolution.

Psychologist William McDougall wrote that instinctive behaviour is made up of three components – perception, behaviour, and emotion.

He outlined emotions that include maternal instinct, comfort, curiosity, laughter, sex, hunger, etc.

Sigmund Freud also outlined the chief motivators of human behaviour as life and death.

On the other hand, William James suggested that the instincts essential for survival are anger, love, fear, shame, and cleanliness.

Amidst these varying theories, what is at the centre is that we might be modern, but our modernity is not without the stone age characteristics that made our ancestors survive without the basic infrastructure that supports life today.

There are more criticisms of the theory of instincts and motivation but psychologists are more interested in how instincts influence behaviour.

Here are the takeaways from the criticism of the instinct theory:

  • Instincts are not scientifically proven or gaugable
  • Instincts don’t explain all human behaviours
  • Most human primal instincts are buried or submerged in modernity and civilization and can only activate when these factors are removed.

Human Primal Instincts in Adults

From the above, we can see that there is no clear agreeable position of human instincts by the experts.

But I am going to outline the most observable human original instincts that we don’t have control over and can be experienced by every human which help us to live and survive the centuries.

These are the instincts without controversy, they are also called natural instincts.

5 Types of Primal/Natural Instincts in Humans

We hear of natural instincts more often than primal instincts, but both could be interchanged.

Just as described above, original instincts are the earliest and most basic of instincts that we manifest at the infant stage of our lives and also helped our ancestors weather the storms of wild living.

Natural instincts are any instincts that we manifest naturally without effort throughout our lives. They are as follows:

  • Protective instincts
  • Maternal instincts
  • Creative instincts
  • Survival instincts
  • Sexual instincts

1. Protective Instincts

We all have a strong protective instinct that keeps us safe and helps us succeed in life’s many dangers.

This instinct is especially powerful when it comes to protecting ourselves and the people around us.

Instincts that protect us are innate tendencies or beneficial indicators that encourage awareness and to be alert, attention, and safe.

It’s the same as hero instincts when men are triggered to protect their woman or loved ones.

Here is a video of the protective instincts of a father:

Courtesy: Hub Pages

These instinctive emotions or feelings forewarn you to avoid particular persons, harmful situations, and potential risks.

Never dismiss your natural protective instincts when they give signals. You must immediately become vigilant, aware, and most definitely prepared to defend yourself or take any appropriate action.

A few signs of protective instincts:

  • Panic
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Flight or fight
  • Apprehension
  • Hesitation

If you happen to experience some uncomfortableness or bad feelings you must immediately become alert, aware, and most definitely prepared to protect yourself.

Examples of protective instincts

  • A boy protecting his sister from unruly young boys
  • A man protecting his family from harm and giving the children the right footing in life
  • Mother-child protective instincts kick in when a child is in danger.

2. Maternal Instincts

Maternal instincts are primal instinct that kicks in when an animal, including a human, become a mother.

The maternal instincts are the unlearned tendencies a mother automatically develops toward their newborn.

It is familiar across many cultures of the world. In essence, it is believed that all women have the mother-child bond.

It comes with such behaviours including nurturing and caregiving, protection, and feeding to ensure the development of the young.

In humans, maternal instincts mean many things to many people.

It can mean the desire to be a mother, it can also be the emotional attachment a mother has towards her children, and can also mean protection and finding what’s best for their children.

However, there are psychological changes that occur in animals and humans during and after pregnancy driven by hormones.

Also Read: Instinctual Motivation: Ways Instincts Influence Actions

For instance, the oxytocin hormone is responsible for happiness and the joy of motherhood and plays a role in the bonding that happens between new mothers and their babies.

Also, the primal instinct to provide for and nurture the newborn is a new responsibility that a mother (animal or human) is eager to undertake automatically.

The instinct to feed the newborn is the first obligation of every new mother and a lot happens in the first moments of bringing a new life into the world.

Breastfeeding can have a boosting effect by releasing oxytocin which brings about well-being feelings and attachment to the newborn.

Examples of Maternal Instincts

  • The desire to have children. Many women are hesitant to become pregnant until they actually do, at which point they believe that it is the best thing that could have ever happened to them. After that, their level of happiness, tranquility, and well-being increases.
  • Becoming a mother changes women’s mentality toward children. Many women experience a disconnect from their children. But as soon as they get theirs, their emotions shift. They have the capacity to form close bonds and provide care in novel ways.
  • Nursing is second nature. The body is built to nourish the infant and supply all it requires in the form of milk. While some women find it difficult to breastfeed, many people do so naturally because it has done so for generations.
  • Compared to fathers, women create bonds that are considerably stronger. They are also more sensitive than dads to the needs and desires of the baby.
  • Mothers begin accumulating materials, toys, and necessities to create a nursery by the third month of pregnancy. They have a strong desire to be ready for the baby’s arrival.
  • Many parents enjoy the way their newborn children smell. It’s interesting to note that 90% of new mothers can smell their own kids within just 10 minutes of holding them.

3. Creative Instincts

Right from the beginning of man, creativity has been a thing. Early men devised ways to help themselves in almost everything.

In the stone age, humans used stones as tools in solving their problems like cracking nuts and sharpening them to use as today’s knives.

Creative instincts are triggered in the face of problems that require solutions.

As a primal instinct, every human can exhibit it unconsciously because a problem must be solved which fosters the survival or betterment of the individual.

Examples of Creative Instincts

  • The use of tools by early men to build shelter, crack nuts, hunt, etc.
  • Development of languages
  • The play of words can be seen in rhymes and poetry
  • Science and technology

4. Survival Instincts

Survival instincts are simply the capacity to know how to survive. How to know how to stay alive.

It is a primal instinct and the foremost and most important instinct humans and animals have.

Anything that stands in the way of surviving becomes an enemy that must be defeated.

These instinct pushes human to fight any adversity or hurdle to remain alive. This owes to the hypothalamus, the secret hormones that trigger most human motivations.

It becomes active when we are under attack or facing a threat.

Related: What Are The 5 Basic Human Instincts?

It sets off a chain of chemical reactions in our nerve cells that prepare us for the upcoming defense.

Our heart rate accelerates, adrenaline is released into the blood, and blood is pushed into our muscles and limbs more quickly.

Our senses—awareness, sight, and impulses—all sharpen and speed up. You may thank our predecessors who lived in caves for this.

The fight-or-flight reaction developed to assist early men to avoid or combat the threats they faced in order to survive.

It is from survival instincts that we evolve, become resilient, and overcome negative situations.

Examples of Survival Instincts

  • Fighting for your position which is a source of livelihood
  • Playing dead in the face of a brutal attack
  • When we run for our lives in the face of unmatched danger
  • We need food, water, and shelter to survive and protect ourselves from the harsh elements and we don’t just sit back and achieve it, we employ creative instincts to have them.

5. Sexuality Instincts

Sexual instinct is a primal instinct that animals and humans possess for the procreation and preservation of the species.

The motivating factor in human sexuality is sexual instinct or desire.

Desire is seen as a distinct element of the human sexual response cycle, although being closely related to and frequently occurs with other sexual responses such as sexual arousal and sexual activity.

The ability, motivation, and opportunity to experience and express sexual desire are linked to a wide range of personal, interpersonal, and environmental factors, according to research.

These include relationship health and function like:

  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Communication
  • Satisfaction
  • Levels of passionate love
  • Demographic characteristics like mental and physical health – chronic illness, mood disorders,
  • Hormonal processes testosterone levels, and hormonally mediated life events like menstruation, pregnancy

Virtually, every aspect of a person’s life has an impact on sexual desire, which is a complicated, multiple-determinant reaction.

It is sexual instincts that drive our desire to want someone.

We might find the opposite sex sexually attractive because it is natural and we can’t help it.

Any deviation from this natural order is abnormal and is a defect.

This is why the presence of a desirable woman arouses a man and he has to make a move to woo her.

Though humans can control this because of reasoning, animals can’t.

Here is a dedicated post on having confidence in your instincts.

Examples of Sexual Instincts

  • Strong sex drive in youth and sexual exploration with the opposite sex
  • Rape most times is a result of an uncontrollable sex drive
  • Driving or traveling long distances to meet a potential mate
  • Jealousy or anxiety that arises from relationships can lead to fighting a rival who also has an interest in the potential sex mate

List of Some Other Human Instincts

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Shyness
  • Curiosity
  • Affection
  • Sexual love
  • Jealousy and envy
  • Rivalry, sociability
  • Sympathy
  • Modesty
  • Imitation
  • Constructiveness
  • Secretiveness
  • Acquisitiveness
  • Shyness
  • Sociability

How to Sharpen and Improve Your Primal Instincts

Since our primal instinct is an essential part of our living that we cannot do without. It’s best then to sharpen it and make it more useful instead of relegating it to prehistory.

Here are ways to sharpen it:

1. Know the Benefits

Knowing the benefits or the reason you are sharpening your instinct is the starting point. This is the motivation you need to propel you.

Just as natural instincts have been the survival tactics of man, it continues to be relevant in today’s modern world and could be the balance we crave.

  • Sharpening your instincts would help you discern clues and avert mistakes
  • It helps you recognize patterns and make appropriate decisions
  • It helps to master new skills quickly
  • It eliminates the fear of the unknown and provides a spirit of exploration

2. Pay Attention to Your Gut Feeling

Gut feeling is a way your initial instincts manifest to you physically and it is recognizable because it always happens when we need to take a decision or be cautious.

The strange uncurling or collapsing feeling we feel deep in our stomach when we are in uncomfortable situations is a gut feeling.

When you master and respect your gut feeling, you sharpen your instinct to an extent.

3. Find Time to Spend Alone

Solitude is a great way to relax, communicate and reflect on self. When you spend time often with yourself, you begin to see some patterns of mental strength, creativity and a new kind of self-love you never knew was there.

Instincts is a skill that happens on the individual level and manifests more when you are not distracted.

Make it a routine to deliberately take time away from friends and work and see how your original instincts perform.

4. Practice Mentalization

Mentalization is the ability to understand the mental state of others and what they are capable of.

Yes! Everyone can exercise some mental ability unconsciously as our day-to-day way of life.

But deliberately practicing mentalization for the purpose of improving mental awareness sharpens your instincts.

Use body language and other non-verbal cues to read people’s minds to understand how to approach them.

5. Be a Lover of Nature

Instincts are nature and continue to be. Embracing nature opens new doorways to harness one of its own.

Deliberately listening to the chirping of the birds, watching wildlife and landscapes etc, has a positive effect on our lives.

We might not completely go back to our caveman life, but we can tap into the wealth of benefits life provides by stepping back into prehistory and relieving stress.

6. Disconnect from the Global Village from Time to Time

Our fast-paced life is exciting but more draining and stress-inducing. We seem to be on an endless catching-up.

It is an instinct-sharpening move to take a step back and relish the primitive side of life.

Take the opposite direction by dropping the phone and turning to animals and nature, or whatever it is that is not modernity.

This will boost energy that has been lying fallow and untapped. This is actually how many people who understand life recharge their lives to be more effective at work.


Primal instincts as the basis for all other instincts are present in humans and animals and have served them since the beginning of the system of things.

Though animals strictly live on core instincts and rely on them for their entire activities without any other choice, humans can condition their instincts and even relegate them.

That is why civilization has had a noticeable impact on our primal instincts as most of them have been swallowed by major breakthroughs in science.

However, our instincts still remain and kick in whenever we need them. Primal instincts don’t get destroyed, they are always there to help.


Elephango: What are Animal Instincts?

Your Health and Longevity: Do Humans Have Instincts?

Harvard Business Review: How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?

MeadProject: The Importance of Human Instincts

Seeker: 6 Types Of Natural Instincts

Simply Psychology: How the Instincts Theory Explains Motivation

Wonder Opolis: Wonder Why Do Spiders Spin Webs?

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A Personal Development Content Creator and an author. I write about life ethics and love to document and share life hacks and experiences of people to help others make good life decisions.

Every content published on The Conducts Of Life is well-reviewed by our board of experienced professionals in psychology. Contents are fact-checked for accuracy, relevance, and timeliness and we include links to sources at the bottom of every article for more insight.