So are instincts such as not touching fire or don’t touch sharp points trained out because we felt pain from them first (or heard it’ll bring pain from other)? Or are those instinct born with us?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. Have you read anything about this subject online or in books? If so could you please provide some details of this and anything you might not quite understand? This would help to answer your question more effectively $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ Babies are fascinated by fire and will instinctively reach out to touch it like they do everything else that catches their eye. They need to be informed of its dangers. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 16:00

2 Answers 2


Survival instinct in neuroscience has also been called a "fight or flight" response (Cannon 1929). It refers to the natural instinct of animals (humans included) in response to fear. This response has a neuroscientific basis and involved several brain regions. When a threat is perceived it activates the amygdala (known to be responsible for emotions), autonomic nervous system (that control involuntary function such as heart rate and breath), and facilitates the release of cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline.

This brain circuit is already present at birth and constitutes the first and impulsive response to threat. It is an evolutionary instinct developed by humans when predators threatened survival chances.

However, growing up, there are several other components to consider in "survival instinct response". There is surely a learning component given by pain. Pain act as preservation, pushing us away from what is dangerous for us. An example can be fire. We were not born with the idea that fire is a threaten, however when we first touch it we feel pain. The feeling of pain at fire contact makes us learn that fire is bad for our survival, it is painful to touch. Therefore, in the future, we will have cortisol and adrenaline discharge when we are pushed towards fire sources.

To conclude and answer the question:

  • We are born with fight or flight instinct (mind that there is always an exception to the norm). This instinct is our primary response to possible threats to our life.
  • There is a learning component involving pain that refines our instinct. Pain teaches us important lessons on what else it is important to add to our threat list. Furthermore, this instinct can be inhibited (with training or drugs).


  • Milosevic, I., & McCabe, R. E. (Eds.). (2015). Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear: The Psychology of Irrational Fear. ABC-CLIO.
  • Jansen, A. S., Van Nguyen, X., Karpitskiy, V., Mettenleiter, T. C., & Loewy, A. D. (1995). Central command neurons of the sympathetic nervous system: basis of the fight-or-flight response. Science, 270(5236), 644-646.
  • McCarty, R. (2016). The fight-or-flight response: A cornerstone of stress research. In Stress: Concepts, cognition, emotion, and behavior (pp. 33-37). Academic Press.
  • Derakhshan, A., Mikaeili, M., Nasrabadi, A. M., & Gedeon, T. (2019). Network physiology of ‘fight or flight response in facial superficial blood vessels. Physiological measurement, 40(1), 014002.

I suppose, you meant "Is survival instinct just a consequence of pain, or is it something different, independent?" And this is quite a good question, because in most cases pain feeling appear together with survival instinct (for example, fights or fire), and it's hard to understand what exactly leads a person.

It's also good to consider pain as a part of self-preservation, together with fear (of pain).

Unfortunately, I haven't found any clear answer, but there are several clues and researches of related topics.

  1. Some rare people feel no pain. However, there are 2 separate diseases: congenital insensitivity to pain and congenital indifference to pain. Both of them lead to higher death rate comparing to normal people, but indifference to pain leads to a bit smaller death rate than insensitivity to pain. We can make a conclusion, that understanding of dangerous situations helps people survive without feeling pain. Thus, survival instinct differs from feeling pain (at least in some cases).
  2. Statistics shows that death rate of people feeling no pain is very high in childhood and decreases over the years. Again, we see that experience shapes the awareness of dangers, and people learn to avoid them even without feeling pain.
  3. There are researches that distinguish and measure separately fear of dying (which can be understood as self-preservation, fear of pain) and fear of being dead (which can be understood as fear of death itself), and they obtain different results. This is another evidence of inequity of survival instinct and (fear of) feeling pain.

To conclude, we can suppose that survival instinct consists of self-preservation (feeling pain and fear of it) and Moree high-level fear of death itself.


  1. David E. Comings, George D. Amromin: Autosomal dominant insensitivity to pain with hyperplastic myelinopathy and autosomal dominant indifference to pain
  2. Lora-Jean Collett & David Lester: The Fear of Death and the Fear of Dying

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