Chapter 17: Nature of Impulse

James Rowland Angell

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Throughout the whole of the preceding chapter, so far as we have dealt with facts of consciousness, we have had constantly before our notice impulses of one or another kind. Impulse is, then, from the psychologist's standpoint unquestionably the cardinal fact about instincts. The residuum is a matter of physiology and biology. It is a mere matter of neural mechanisms. But so far as we have impulse we have a definite psychical factor, and we must examine it somewhat more intimately.

Impulse and Movement.-- Etymologically considered, an impulse is anything which "pushes along." We have repeatedly observed the tendency of all forms of consciousness to pass over into movements, and there can be no doubt that in this sense at least all states of consciousness are naturally impulsive in character. Left to itself, any mental condition would convert itself at once into some kind of muscular movement. This is peculiarly true of direct sensory impressions, which, as we saw in the chapters on sensation and attention, tend, so far as we give them undivided attention, to set up immediate motor responses. It is, however, equally true of images and other centrally aroused psychoses, so far as we become absorbingly attentive to them. If we have reference, then, primarily to the consequences which follow upon mental states, there seems to be no obvious exception to the rule that they all tend toward muscular movements, and are, therefore, all intrinsically impulsive.


This fact must riot, however, be interpreted as meaning that all states of mind reveal these motor consequences in equal measure, nor that the impulsive element in them is insusceptible of further analysis. Quite the contrary. The disposition to make certain movements is much more marked in cases of anger than in cases of reluctant choice after deliberation. Moreover, the whole psychosis in anger may be much more intense than in the other case, and we may, therefore, be much more vividly aware of these tendencies. It is evident, consequently' that, viewing the matter introspectively, we have to recognise the existence of very different degrees of impulsiveness in our immediate feelings of disposition to movement. The feeling may be very distinct and acute, or it may be so faint and insignificant as to have hardly any existence save the hypothetical one to which our whole observation of conscious operations has committed us.

Development of Impulse.-- Furthermore, we shall at once remark another important distinction if we note the change-, accruing from the development of the individual's experience. The first time that one of the strong racial impulses is felt, the individual's consciousness contains little or no anticipation of what is about to occur. He is simply aware of an unusual thrill, a passing unrest, which comes to him disclosed in part by muscular movements -- half mechanical in their nature. But the inner meaning of his experience is at the moment, perhaps, wholly problematic to him. He is a stranger to himself. How true to the facts this statement is many persons will readily admit by recalling some of the strange, acute mental disturbances of their own adolescent period. The child screaming with fright for the first time is likely to harbour no little shame over the event afterward because of its startling strangeness to him. The youth smitten with his first infatuation is a constant source of wonder to himself. He has become suddenly aware of a multitude of feelings which before were inexistent for him. But all

(312) these impulses, once they have been experienced, are thereby forever changed. They may retain, as many of them do, a prodigious intensity and vitality, but thenceforth they have lost a part of their mystery. We know at least so much of what they mean as to anticipate the acts to which they tend to lead. From this time forth we become increasingly aware of the objects which are calling them into being and of the consequences to which they lead. The impulses tend, therefore, to become more and more sophisticated. They become illuminated with a knowledge of their meaning, and the immediacy of our feeling and our unrestrained disposition to reaction are lost forever after the original, unsullied reaction. The conscious portion of the instinctive life is modified by growth and experience quite as truly as the purely motor and physiological parts of it.

Consciousness of Impulse.-- We have seen that even though we admit impulse as a feature characterising all forms of mental activity, we have also to acknowledge very different degrees in the intensity of this impulsiveness, and very different conditions surrounding its expression. We may observe a further similar peculiarity belonging to those reactions which we most commonly regard as instinctive. We may call the play impulse definitely instinctive, and so give it rank among those expressions of our motor dispositions of which we are most keenly and unambiguously conscious. But it requires no elaborate demonstration to prove that we are most distinctly cognisant of the impulsive nature of this reaction when for any reason its expression is hampered or checked. Moreover, a little observation would bring the conviction that this is a general principle applicable all along the line. We can hardly be said to be conscious of the impulse, as an impulse, if the conditions are all ripe for its immediate translation into movement. Under such conditions we are absorbed in the object of our doing, in the act, in the consequences, with their thousand ramifications. But the im-

(313)-pulse to act, as such, we are hardly aware of in any genuine sense, unless something impedes the impulsive movement. Then we promptly become aware of tense muscles, of thwarted execution. Then we are really conscious of the impulse, and we are made conscious of it by means of the nascent and incipient movements to which it has actually given rise. As a matter of fact, few of our impulsive tendencies ever find the opportunity to run wholly free and unconstrained. But so far as they do, we find we have lost consciousness of the impulse, as such. We encounter no exception at this juncture, then, to the facts which we have in the earlier part of the book so often emphasised, i. e., the fact that consciousness appears at those points where there is friction of one kind or another in the purely physiological mechanisms of adjustment.

Types of Impulse.-- It remains to comment upon an extremely important distinction among the various forms of impulse. Certain of these seem to be practically invariable in their appearance in all human beings, and they show themselves in the form of relatively fixed forms of movement. These are the instinctive reactions in the strictest sense of the phrase. In this category belong such activities as fear and anger. Certain other impulses are essentially universal but still somewhat less uniform in their appearance than the preceding class. These impulses have a far more variable form of expression. They belong the reactions we call play, imitation in certain forms, parental love, etc. Both these classes of impulses give every evidence of a racial origin. But the first type is evidently the more stable and more deeply impressed upon the organism. Over against these two classes of impulsive acts-- the first of which are properly called instincts, in which the individual is expressing the pressure of racial experience-are to be set the residual conscious activities, which are all impulsive, as we have seen, in the sense in which this indicates their relation to movement. These latter forms of consciousness are, however, representative of the

(314) processes by means of which, on the foundation of his racial patrimony, the individual builds up his own adaptive responses to his environment. The antitheses, then, are on both the physiological and the psychological side to be found between impulse as hereditary, and founded on inherited neural structure, and impulse as individual and reflective of innate personal disposition. The first factor represents the element of conservation and habit, the second the element of variation and progress.


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