Basic Instincts

How basic instincts provide practical insights into the mind and religion, and how a special third basic instinct separates us from other animals.

Human needs…WHAT ARE THEY?!

What makes us tick?

Confusion over needs?One of the greatest challenges facing humanity may well revolve around a misunderstanding of human needs. It can lead to frustrations, diseases, and even war. Sounds farfetched? Let's look at some circumstantial evidence before we dig into the theory.

According to the World Health Organization, one in five people are clinically depressed. It describes depression as the biggest epidemic that the world has ever known and, significantly, levels are far higher than a hundred years ago despite the fact that life today is easier and more comfortable than ever--and despite more psychotherapists being gamefully employed than ever! We are living in a world in which the number one killer on the planet is not cancer, influenza, or hunger. Killing more than all other causes combined is heart disease, which is virtually self-induced. The PMRI (Preventative Medicine Research Institute) believes that heart disease is completely avoidable and even reversible in 85% to 95% of cases through change of diet and lifestyle. Human desires--and the actions that result from those desires--are certainly behind this number one killer. The list goes on: road rage, drug addiction, smoking...and how about suicide bombings? These all constitute circumstantial evidence that we may be living in a world where human needs are not well understood.

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Behind every action is a thought, and behind that thought is a desire of some kind. EVOLUTION 101: Our desires are tied to survival and reproduction--the first two basic instincts. Done deal, you may say. But what if there's more...

Unfortunately, we are living in a world in which our desires--while being tied to millions of years of evolution in their origin--are misled by modern trappings that our minds simply are not "naturally" equipped to deal with in the healthiest, most progressive way. This is a gargantuan challenge that includes television, processed meats, flavor enhancers, video games, adult topless bars, internet porn, contraception, narcotics, shopping, fashion magazines, and even commercials! Add to this huge challenge the fact that humans have a third basic instinct, which has gone virtually unnoticed, buzzing under the scientific and social radars, and we have a recipe for a very confusing world, filled with philosophical conflicts over women's rights in Islam, supreme court nominations in the US, family values, and even the definitions of morality and happiness.

That's a lot to swallow, so let's contrast this mouthwatering array with a very simple framework for understanding human needs. Einstein once wrote that "All physical theories ought to lend themselves to so simple a description that even a child could understand them." His famous quote was echoed by Denzel Washington's character in the movie Philadelphia: "Explain it to me like I'm a ten-year-old." So here it goes...

Every human desire, impulse, or feeling is tied to a basic instinct. I propose to you that there is not one example of a pleasure, pain, or emotion that exists simply for its own sake. They are always tied to a basic instinct. I welcome any examples from bloggers as to what might contradict this statement. Our feelings and desires all evolved to serve a purpose: namely, they are how the subconscious mind guides our actions. Our subconscious mind is the caretaker of basic instincts. As Daniel Goleman write in Emotional Intelligence, "In a very real way, we have two brains." He did not go on to explain the basic instincts behind our feelings, only that our feelings are independently managed by the subconscious mind. Let me fill in this gap by going deeper into the subconscious mind than Emotional Intelligence.

We will often have sex without consciously wanting to have children because there is an indirect link between basic instincts and actions--as opposed to a direct link. We often consciously have sex for pleasure or love. Feelings represent the indirect link. The subconscious mind feeds these feelings to us to guide our actions. There is only one problem with this setup. We did not evolve with contraception. It is a modern element that is confusing our evolved machinery. As a result, there is a danger that our subconscious mind will guide us to perform acts repeatedly and with tremendous vim and vigor, but without serving the purpose that made those feelings evolve in the first place. This model can be applied to overeating, eating unhealthy processed meats, drugs, and even religion.

Going back to the title of this blog: Human needs...what are they? They are not pleasure, avoiding pain, love, or even happiness. When a child says that he or she needs to play a video game, parents rightly correct the child: "You don't need to; you want to." There are only three human needs--and they are our basic instincts. They facilitate our existence through survival (i.e. existence as an individual) or through the generations (i.e. existence genetically). All other apparent needs are really mental mechanisms. The distinction is crucial to life in the modern world. Within our heads, feelings get us to act a certain way. The subconscious mind uses feelings as tools to guide our actions. The real you--the conscious you--is guided by these feelings. Such powerful feelings can be led astray, especially in the modern world, leading to problems. Seeing pleasure and other feelings as an end unto themselves can magnify the damage, or lead to frustration, excessive worry, or depression when certain levels of happiness are not attained.

In my book, I reveal the third basic instinct. In the meantime, simply understanding the mechanisms around how the subconscious mind guides human actions using intense feelings can provide a practical benefit. In a world filled with countless modern elements that we did not evolve to deal with naturally, knowledge is power. Simply understanding the mechanisms can help us gain more balance in our daily lives and make healthier decisions. It may even help us to more effortlessly attain one of Buddha's goals: moderation.

Alex S. Key is author of The Third Basic Instinct, and has successfully applied evolutionary psychology to aspects of everyday life, including belief systems.

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