Instinctual Intelligence in Action: Felix Baumgartner

“It takes a lot of skill and practice to keep from freaking out and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

So said the sky-diving trainer of Felix Baumgartner speaking on the radio this morning. If you haven’t yet heard about this incredible stunt then take a look at the Guardian’s report:

The point is that if Felix B had panicked and had reacted inappropriately, if he hadn’t anticipated what could go wrong and hadn’t mentally and physically rehearsed how he should immediately respond to it, then in all likelihood he’d have gone into an uncontrollable spin, blacked out and died immediately on impact with the ground.

Here’s a brilliant example of ‘instinctual intelligence’ in action. What we’re talking about here is far more than a mere ‘skill’ – it’s an intelligence that kicks in instantaneously without any conscious process of thinking in any situation that requires split-second reaction to danger and possible disaster. It’s the opposite of intellectual or reasoned decision-making.

In certain crisis situations, such as spinning during a sky dive (from 24 miles high!) or whilst driving an F1 car at 200mph, you cannot afford to wait a moment to think what you’re going to do next. Reaction is all you have, and if you haven’t trained yourself to react correctly and skilfully without conscious thought then all may be lost. In fact all of us who drive a car or ride a cycle or motor cycle know this is true: if you need to consciously tell yourself to brake in an emergency situation then it’s probable that someone will get very badly injured or even killed. We act without “thinking” when instinctual intelligence is necessary.

This is why people who live in very cold countries where there are icy road conditions for several months of the year spend time practicing their driving on skid-pans – so that they react correctly and instantly to skids, especially in situations where counter-intuitive movements of the steering wheel and non-operation of the brakes are required.

However, it doesn’t take a dramatic event or an emergency situation to engage our instinctual intelligence systems. A very small child who learns to ride a two-wheeled cycle employs instinctual intelligence. Simultaneously using both your hands, both feet, both eyes and also your sense of balance requires far more than a conscious intellectual appreciation of what you’re doing. It requires instinctual intelligence.

We’re born with instinctual intelligence. We cry when we’re needy or unhappy. We suck at breasts, we swallow, we sleep. Some mammals can even stand and run from the moment of birth. These are all instincts.

But instincts are not simply a ‘given’ which exists in a fixed quantity that we cannot reduce or increase. Like any other intelligence, instinctual intelligence can be developed over time. A young child struggles to shape letters with a pencil, trying to remember the correct movements that the teacher has demonstrated. An adult uses a pen to write fluently without the slightest thought about hand movements. A young child struggles to write with a computer keyboard, looking carefully to find the correct letters. An adult’s fingers fly across the keyboard with any conscious thought or effort. Thoughts in the head become words and sentences on a screen without any conscious thought or effort – except for the thoughts about what we’re trying to say. Intellect and instinct work beautifully together in perfect harmony.


A few reflections on ‘skills’ might be in order here.

The word ‘skill’ is often used in connection with ‘training’. In our view, we do need to train ourselves in order to develop skills. But skills are a subset of ‘intelligence’, and each of the six intelligences has its own subset of skills.

Within ‘intellect‘ we memorise number facts and we carry out mathematical computations.
Within ‘instinctual intelligence‘ we train ourselves to respond instantly and without conscious thought to various situations.
Within ‘physical intelligence‘ we train ourselves to carry out careful observations and skillful listening, as well as the management of our physical selves.
Within ‘social intelligence‘ we train ourselves to refine our empathy and to manage destructive emotions.
Within ‘personal intelligence‘ we develop insight into ourselves and we practice self-awareness.
Within ‘spiritual intelligence‘ we can train ourselves to meditate in various ways and to practice the use of intuition. We can also practice certain skills which may be called ‘virtues’.

We think it’s important in all our discourses and conversations about human functioning to be aware that ‘skill’ doesn’t exist as an entity that’s somehow apart from ‘intelligence’, and that we understand that each skill has its place within a set of skills that is part of a particular intelligence.

One of the biggest challenges we face as humans and also as educators, parents, etc, is to be clear about our concepts and our terminology when we discuss education, intelligences, skills and abilities. We need a common vocabulary and we need a common set of definitions and assumptions. It seems we have quite a long way to go in order to attain this clarity.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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3 Responses to Instinctual Intelligence in Action: Felix Baumgartner

  1. Professions for PEACE says:

    I really appreciate your list of each of the six intelligences with its own subset of skills. This article reminds me of why fire drills are important, even in a home setting with a fifty year old man, forty something woman and twenty year old son: we need to practice, hoping it won’t be needed but if it is, we can run on instincts. Also as someone who lives in an icy country (waking to 10 centimetres of snow this morning!) driving a car requires skills one has to learn. When hitting a patch of ice, an inexperienced driver may ‘instinctively’ hit their brakes hard (not a good choice) but someone who has experienced ice for years knows to actually barely touch the brakes and rather turn and gently accelerate to pull away from the ice. It’s hard to describe but driving on ice is akin to directing a boat, and slides must be expected and worked with. That’s why allowing distance and remaining calm are essential. Thanks for another wonderfully thought-provoking post! Your articles always get me going! Cheers, Gina


  2. Karen Wan says:

    What a great example of instinctual intelligence! This was a great conversation starter with my kids about the various kinds of intelligence that they are developing, not that I want them to do anything this dangerous! 🙂


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