INSTINCT AND INHIBITION

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.


          In The Wisdom of the Body (Knopt 1997) by Sherwin Nuland, the author traces the origins of the word "instinct" to the latin "stinguere," meaning to goad or to prick. He points out that the word instigate has the same origin, and emphasizes the persistent and compelling nature of our inherent and genetically acquired tendencies to behave in certain ways.

          I've found that people tend to think of instinctive movement as something that happens quickly. It preserves us from threat that is potentially harmful or, at least, painful. They think that when we do something instinctively, it is jerky and sudden, it lacks grace and control and possesses more power than absolutely necessary.

          But, in fact, none of these qualities necessarily characterize instinctive functioning, and their absence does not imply that our movement is not inherent to our preservation. Breathing is instinctive, yet it is often slow and graceful. In fact, under ordinary circumstances, any small child will display the effortless, unselfconcious contraction of the diaphragm that is manifest as an expansion of the belly every few seconds.

          Then one day they are somehow directed to "stand up straight." This invariably includes an admonition to "expand the chest and flatten the stomach." Thus begins the conscious inhibition of diaphragmatic contraction, and before very long this effort becomes second nature. Breathing loses its grace, and although the physiologic consequences of a persistent upper respiratory breath are all negative, the pay off is a slimmer appearance, and this is encouraged by our culture to a phenomenal degree.

          In a moment, our instinct to breathe freely is overridden by the power of our cortex, and our desire to gain the approval of others. Remember that a neuron receives many signals at once. Their total effect is determined by adding those that are excitatory and subtracting those that are inhibitory. More than any other animal, we are capable of inhibiting that which would preserve us in favor of behaviors that make us appear a certain way.

          My work seems to be about creating an environment that makes it safe to express something that our culture has sought to extinguish; the complete expression of instinctive, corrective movement. Portions of this activity are seen in our shifting about as we sit. Beyond a certain point it is called fidgeting, and we can usually count on any one near us to express disapproval of it.

          But since it is unconsciously bidden and done in an effort to achieve comfort, I reason that its amplification would help even more. When allowed, those movements often emerge gracefully, slowly, and with the precise force needed. They are the manifestation of the internal goading and pricking that we've come to distrust despite its origins in the lower centers of our brain, or, maybe, because of that origin.

          Is it possible that any culture might value appearance to such a degree? Could it possibly get to the point where massive resources are devoted to cosmetic exercises and surgical procedures? Would one of its professions once devoted to caring for the disabled become the "posture police," and transform its members into trainers and exemplars of an ideal body?

          Look around. Then decide for yourself.