From Wikipedia:

Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior.

The example that I find is the easiest to touch upon is the spider and how it knows how to spin it's web. What are the current theories about the origin of this knowledge without learning in the traditional sense? I understand that all knowledge is encoded somehow within neurons in the brain, but where does this encoding come from?


1 Answer 1


In my mind there are two main explanations of this kind of instinct behaviours.

  • The first one is rooted in evolution. There are many examples of human innate behaviours which we can't explain e.g. when we see a lace or tape on the street we automatically jump and feel scared. Although we live in big city our brain associates the lace with a snake. It is an effect of our "prememories", memories of our ancestors.

-> Buss D., Evolutionary Psychology: the New science of the Mind (1999)

  • The second explanation is more connected with your question as it refers to animals' innate instincts such as birds' travels (how do they know where to fly?) etc. Some interesting experiments were conducted on a phenomenon called epigenetic inheritance. An example is teaching animals some reactions after specific stimulus (e.g.fear after specific smell etc.). Then we observe the learned behaviours in the descendants of these animals. Offspring of trained animals show the same reaction , although nobody trained them to do that. There is an abstract of such experiment with mice:


And there you can read more about it in another article:


-> Griffiths, Gelbart, Miller. Modern Genetic Analysis.(1999)

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the tip. Once I've read and critically examined those articles, I'll mark your answer as correct. If you would like to help me, I'll be looking for the link of how the epiginetic memory is expressed in the neurons. Namely, do we have a mapping from genes into neurons or is it more complicated? $\endgroup$
    – Seanny123
    May 11, 2014 at 21:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Seanny123 , I suggest you to write another question on CS on this topic. I'm not sure if I understand you well - what do you mean by "how the epigenetic memory is expressed in the neurons"? Do you mean how looks the way from gens into neurons and later into behaviour? ps. In the first link which I gave you in the answer is only abstract of article by experiment's authors. The second link leads to another article which refers to this experiment with mice but it is not written by exp's authors. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2014 at 21:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Here's a link to the full text of Dias & Ressler (2014; it's a PDF). $\endgroup$ May 12, 2014 at 4:52

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