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Intuition vs Instinct: What Are the Main Differences?

intuition Jun 09, 2022


What is intuition?


Intuition is partly instinct  it’s a natural ability to know or understand something without conscious reasoning— it’s subtle energetic guidance. There is no separation between you and your intuition — intuition is within you! We all have this ability, but everyone has varying levels of sensitivity and awareness. Some people are more naturally gifted because they're highly sensitive or extremely empathic and intuitive; some of us are less so. But we all have intuitive, empathic gifts that can be developed. Everyone is born with some level of intuition.


Intuition operates through the parts of our brain that are responsible for managing creativity, memory, and recognizing patterns. So while intuition may be partly instinctual, it also takes into account previous experiences and predictions of patterns. There are parts of intuition that are unexplained and cannot easily be measured. 


“Trust your gut” is a phrase you may have heard when it comes to intuition, but intuition is more complex than the feelings you have in your gut. This saying is partly accurate because our brains are connected neuron-to-nueron all the way to our digestive system (our gut), so many people will experience a “gut feeling” when experiencing intuition. Trusting your gut is not always a helpful statement to people who have experienced trauma for example because our bodies have a memory of experiences and an upset stomach (or gut feeling) can occur for many reasons. Learn more about intuition vs anxiety.


Most people think of intuition as a feeling, thought, or knowing. Often intuition can feel almost detached, like a wise part of you is operating on your behalf. Intuition feels calm and grounded. When you experience intuition, there is often no need for anxiety because you have “a knowing” of what to do.


When you are experiencing intuition, you may:


  • have a strong feeling or knowing
  • feel calm and sure of yourself
  • know exactly what you truly want or need to do


There is also an unexplained quality to intuition, and I believe that this inner wisdom comes from not only your mind, but your soul. Your soul knows the greater reasons for your purpose here in this lifetime and has a vast knowledge of the universe. Tuning into your intuition and connecting to your soul can help you to live a life more aligned with your truth and integrity. Because your soul is wise and confident, accessing this part of you can help you to make decisions that serve your highest good without fear of other judgments or expectations. Your soul can help you be your full self unapologetically. 

What is instinct?


Like intuition, instinct is something that comes naturally to living beings.


Merriam-Webster defines instinct as “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason".


Instincts are present with us at birth and are typically rooted in our survival. These innate behaviors don’t require our learning and aren't in response to any external stimuli. Birds building nests, spiders spinning a web, or human babies crying when they're hungry are all examples of survival instincts that we are born with. 


The Instinct Theory of Motivation, first written about by Psychologist William McDougall, suggests that instinctive behavior was composed of three essential elements: perception, behavior, and emotion. He also outlined 18 different instincts that included curiosity, maternal instinct, laughter, comfort, sex, and food-seeking. While scientists often disagree on what defines instinct, it is widely believed that instincts are unlearned behavior that aids in our survival and are observable across species. 


When our instincts tell us to survive, intuition is sometimes the messenger, acting as a “sixth sense” to help us. We also possess reflexes and conditioned responses that we develop over time. Have you ever held your finger out to a newborn baby? If you have, you'll notice they will instinctively clasp your finger as a reflex, babies open their mouths instinctively to eat, however they don't yet innately possess protective instincts to shield themselves from external stimuli. Babies need to learn through experience to cover their eyes from the sun or block their face when their sibling bounces a ball in their direction — this is an example of a reflex. So when a baby learns to protect their face from a bouncing ball, the instinct is to survive and the reflex that’s learned is the blocking motion. Now if you or this baby had an unexplained knowledge that a bouncing ball is impending and protectively moved to cover their face, this could be intuition. 



How are intuition and instinct different?


While instinct may be felt, known or experienced as a feeling or thought, instinct is typically an action or response. In a case where intuition may alert you of danger, your instinct would be the flight or fight actions that you take. Instincts are behaviors and often observable across species where intuition is often an internal experience and less observable. We can observe how honey bees choose a location to build a hive and communicate to one another about local food sources, their behaviors are highly predictable and observable. However, much debate exists on their level of consciousness and awareness of one another. Intuition is an immeasurable inner experience that can not be easily assessed. 



How are intuition and instinct the same?


Intuition and instinct are both innate abilities that we have without learning. Intuition is essentially an instinct. Both intuition and instinct could be shaped by our experiences and the world around us and will evolve over time. Instincts are typically geared towards survival and intuition will become a strong messenger for self preservation as well. Both intuition and instinct can help “save us” in extreme situations. With intuition and instinct we can observe behaviors that help us to survive and these behaviors are often innate and don't require any prior learning. Intuition comes from the soul and is a subtle energetic guidance often considered connected to the divine or a “sixth sense.” Intuition can protect us from harm but also help us to make everyday decisions that are for the highest good. Intuition feels calm and grounded and there need not be danger nearby to have an intuitive impression. Instinct is much more subtle and grounded, typically connected to our environment and surroundings. Most instincts center around our safety and having our basic needs met. 



Examples of instinctive behaviors are:


  • Turtle hatchlings seeking out water
  • Birds building a nest
  • Bees seeking nectar and building a hive
  • Flinching when you hear a loud noise
  • Pulling your hand away when you touch something hot
  • Breathing
  • Eating when you are hungry



Examples of intuitive feelings are:


  • Sensing danger
  • Feeling excited about an opportunity
  • Suddenly knowing the answer to a puzzle or project 
  • Taking a different route home without knowing why
  • Avoiding something that makes you uneasy
  • Seeking out people who make you feel alive
  • Knowing exactly what to say at the right time




Why you might be confusing intuition with instinct


Sometimes when you don’t have a rational explanation for a thought or behavior you might assume that it’s a natural instinct. This might sometimes be true, however if you start to become familiar with the subtle energetic guidance that is your intuition over time you will be able to tell the difference between intuition and instinct. It’s important to remember that intuition is not always a lifesaving response. As you train yourself to recognize and develop your intuition you might notice that you receive impressions that have nothing to do with lifesaving or urgent situations. For example you might intuitively know where to find a parking space and this could help get you to an important meeting on time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that parking where you have will save your life. Sometimes we can interject our fear or assumptions into intuition, meaning that when we receive intuitive information we might doubt it and assume that we are in a life or death situation. If you're open to receiving intuitive impressions for all types of occasions you will! 


As you begin to regularly develop your intuition, pay extra attention to the difference between your mind assigning meaning to something or your intuition communicating with you. You may have heard that with intuition, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the answer. This can be true because the mind has not yet had a chance to form an impression or interfere.


Try not to assign meaning with your mind, but rather tune in using your intuition. Maintaining an attitude of curiosity rather than a need to explain and “get it right” will be most supportive as you develop your abilities.


It’s important to remember that we are all intuitive and it’s not possible to lose our intuitive abilities or have “bad instincts”. We all use a number of different senses to help us make decisions. Past experiences play a role in your intuitive experiences and it’s difficult to connect to your intuition when your mind is busy or you have anxious thoughts. 



Go even deeper into intuition with the Uncovering Intuition book or see if an intuitive psychic reading is right for you.


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