Kung Fu: Basic Instinct, or Advanced Intelligence?

What is the best way to approach kung fu training? Should we seek to train our instincts, or cultivate our intelligence?

The answer seems obvious. In a fast-paced and dangerous combat scenario, there is simply no time for intellectual deliberation. We must let our animal instincts take control, to react instantly with the self-defense techniques we have drilled to perfection…right?

Wrong. A kung fu student who responds instinctually is following an incoherent strategy; one whose prospects, as demonstrated by the animal kingdom at large, are dismal.

Among the animals, instinct is ubiquitous; yet, outside of cockfighting and other artificial circumstances, the notion of an expert fighting animal is absurd. Within the same species, the slow almost invariably lose to the fast, and the weak fall to the strong—precisely the outcome that most kung fu practitioners hope to avoid.

American Robin (credit: Mgiganteus)
Red-breasted robin

Instinctual behaviors are heuristics, evolutionary shortcuts that (usually) produce an appropriate response with minimal cognitive overhead. In other words, instinct is fast, and it is dumb.

Male robins will automatically attack a rival who enters their territory—or a non-threatening pile of red feathers. Female turkeys instinctually protect their baby chicks, along with any other object that makes a “cheep-cheep” sound—even a tape recorder hidden in a plush toy! Such dim-witted responses are good enough for bird brains, but they represent a giant step backwards for human beings.

We homo sapiens are unique among the animals in our ability to override ancestral instincts, with learned behaviors appropriate to a complex environment. Intelligence, not instinct, keeps us safely settled at the top of the food chain.

Our kung fu training can promote our evolution or devolution, depending on what qualities we choose to emphasize. As for what really works in a fight, we need only compare the performances of amateur brawlers with professional fighters. The former rely on their instincts, with modest results. The latter employ a highly developed intuition, or intelligence at “instinctual” speed. Kung fu, then, must be the opposite of basic instinct?


  1. I find that when I am training regularly, I seem to have more time to respond, more than react, if you take my meaning. Even though I may do something without really thinking about it, my response is appropriate.

  2. How does this relate to Yiquan’s idea that we need to train internally and train our immediate responses for ultimate speed?

  3. “The heart of the study of boxing is to have natural instinct resemble the dragon.”

    Wang Xiang Zhai

    Besides most of the standing post exercises, which calms the mind to a zen state where you are calmly reflecting anything that would make an impression, there are other exercises, such as the tiger posture where you are cultivating an active and aggressive state of mind in response to external stimulus.

    He called himself Old Man Contradiction.

  4. I think we need to be very careful when attempting an analysis of translated text. Instinct is innate, and so it won’t be improved with study. I suspect that refining character and intuition is what Wang really meant.

    My main point here is that high-level kung fu will not be achieved by simply tweaking the “fight or flight response” or troweling on layers of so-called “muscle memory”.

  5. Yes, cultivating intuition and intelligent reaction speed is far better than just drilling case-response scenarios. To get the levels of these skills to “instinct-speed” I think should be the goal for any martial artist.

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