Your Mind and How to Use It

Chapter XII

The Instinctive Emotions

Many attempts to classify the emotions have been made by the psychologists, but the best authorities hold that beyond the purpose of ordinary convenience in considering the subject _any_ classification is scientifically useless by reason of its incompleteness. As James cleverly puts it: “Any classification of the emotions is seen to be as true and as natural as any other, if it only serves some purpose.” The difficulty attending the attempted classification arises from the fact that every emotion is more or less complex, and is made up of various feelings and shades of emotional excitement. Each emotion blends into others. Just as a few elements of matter may be grouped into hundreds of thousands of combinations, so the elements of feeling may be grouped into thousands of shades of emotion. It is said that the two elements of carbon and hydrogen form combinations resulting in five thousand varieties of material substance, “from anthracite to marsh gas, from black coke to colorless naphtha.” The same thing may be said of the emotional combinations formed from two principal elements of feeling. Moreover, the close distinction between sensation and feeling on the one hand, and between feeling and emotion on the other, serves to further complicate the task.

For the purposes of our consideration, let us divide the emotions into five general classes, as follows: (1) Instinctive emotions, (2) social emotions, (3) religious emotions, (4) ├Žsthetic emotions, (5) intellectual emotions. We shall now consider each of the above five classes in turn.


Instinct is defined as “unconscious, involuntary, or unreasoning prompting to any action,” or “the natural unreasoning impulse by which an animal is guided to the performance of any action, without thought of improving the method.” An authority says: “Instinct is a natural impulse leading animals, even prior to all experience, to perform certain actions tending to the welfare of the individual or the perpetuation of the species, apparently without understanding the object at which they may be supposed to aim, or deliberating as to the best methods to employ. In many cases, as in the construction of the cells of the bee, there is a perfection about the result which reasoning man could not have equaled, except by an application of the higher mathematics to direct the operations carried out. Mr. Darwin considers that animals, in time past as now, have varied in their mental qualities, and that those variations are inherited. Instincts also vary slightly in a state of nature. This being so, natural selection can ultimately bring them to a high degree of perfection.”

It was formerly the fashion to ascribe instinct in the lower animals, and in man, to something akin to “innate ideas” implanted in each species and thereafter continued by inheritance. But the application of the idea of evolution to the science of psychology has resulted in brushing away these old ideas. To-day it holds that that which we call “instinct” is the result of gradual development in the course of evolution, the accumulated experience of the race being stored away in the race memory, each individual adding a little thereto by his acquired habits and experiences. Psychologists now hold that the lower forms of these race tendencies are closely akin to purely reflex actions, and the higher forms, which are known as “instinctive emotions,” are phenomena of the subconscious mind resulting from race memory and race experience.

Clodd says: “Instinct is the higher form of reflex action. The salmon migrates from sea to river; the bird makes its nest or migrates from one zone to another by an unvarying route, even leaving its young behind to perish; the bee builds its six-sided cell; the spider spins its web; the chick breaks its way through the shell, balances itself, and picks up grains of corn; the newborn babe sucks its mother’s breast–all in virtue of like acts on the part of their ancestors, which, arising in the needs of the creature, and gradually becoming automatic, have not varied during long ages, the tendency to repeat them being transmitted within the germ from which insect, fish, bird, and man have severally sprung.”

Schneider says: “It is a fact that men, especially in childhood, fear to go into a dark cavern, or a gloomy wood. This feeling of fear arises, to be sure, partly from the fact that we easily suspect that dangerous beasts may lurk in these localities–a suspicion due to stories we have heard and read. But, on the other hand, it is quite sure that this fear at a certain perception is also directly inherited. Children who have been carefully guarded from all ghost stories are nevertheless terrified and cry if led into a dark place, especially if sounds are made there. Even an adult can easily observe that an uncomfortable timidity steals over him in a lonely wood at night, although he may have the fixed conviction that not the slightest danger is near. This feeling of fear occurs in many men even in their own houses after dark, although it is much stronger in a dark cavern or forest. The fact of such instinctive fear is easily explicable when we consider that our savage ancestors through immemorable generations were accustomed to meet with dangerous beasts in caverns, especially bears, and were for the most part attacked by such beasts during the night and in the woods, and that thus an inseparable association between the perceptions of darkness, caverns, woods, and fear took place, and was inherited.”

James says: “Nothing is commoner than the remark that man differs from lower creatures by the almost total absence of instincts, and the assumption of their work in him by reason. * * * We may confidently say that however uncertain man’s reactions upon his environment may sometimes seem in comparison with those of the lower mammals, the uncertainty is probably not due to their possession of any principles of action which he lacks. _On the contrary, man possesses all the impulses that they have, and a great many more besides._ * * * High places cause fear of a peculiarly sickening sort, though here again individuals differ. The utterly blind instinctive character of the motor impulses here is shown by the fact that they are almost always entirely unreasonable, but that reason is powerless to suppress them. * * * Certain ideas of supernatural agency, associated with real circumstances, produce a peculiar kind of horror. This horror is probably explicable as the result of a combination of simple horrors. To bring the ghostly terror to its maximum, many unusual elements of the dreadful must combine, such as loneliness, darkness, inexplicable sounds, especially of a dismal character, moving pictures half discerned (or, if discerned, of dreadful aspect), and a vertiginous baffling of the expectation. * * * In view of the fact that cadaveric, reptilian, and underground horrors play so specific and constant a part in many nightmares and forms of delirium, it seems not altogether unwise to ask whether these forms of dreadful circumstance may not at a former period have been more normal objects of the environment than now. The evolutionist ought to have no difficulty in explaining these terrors, and the scenery that provokes them, as relapses into the consciousness of the cave men, a consciousness usually overlaid in us by experiences of a more recent date.”

Instinctive emotion manifests as an impulse arising from the dim recesses of the feeling or emotional nature–an incentive toward a dimly conscious end. It differs from the almost purely automatic nature of certain forms of reflex process, for its beginning is a feeling arising from the subconscious regions, which strives to excite an activity of conscious volition. The feeling is from the subconscious, but the activity is conscious. The end may not be perceived in consciousness, or at least is but dimly perceived, but the action leading to the end is in full consciousness. Instinct is seen to have its origin in the past experiences of the race, transmitted by heredity and preserved in the race memory. It has for its object the preservation of the individual and of the species. Its end is often something far removed in time from the moment, or the welfare of the species rather than that of the individual; for instance, the caterpillar providing for its future states, or the bird building its nest, or the bees building cells and providing honey for their successors, for very few bees live to partake of the honey which they have gathered and stored–they are animated by “the spirit of the hive.”

The most elementary forms of the instinctive emotions are those which have to do with the preservation of the individual, his comfort, and personal physical welfare. This class of emotions comprises what are generally known as purely “selfish” feelings, having little or no concern for the welfare of others. In this class we find the emotional feelings which have to do with the satisfaction of hunger and thirst, the securing of comfortable quarters and warm clothing, and the spirit of combat and strife arising from the desire to obtain these. These elemental feelings had their birth early in the history of life, and indeed life itself depended very materially upon them for its preservation and continuance. It was necessary for the primitive living thing to be “selfish.” When man appeared, only those survived who manifested these feelings strongly; the others were pushed to the wall and perished. Even in our civilization the man below the average in this class of feelings will find it difficult to survive.

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