A Perspective on Instinctive Aiming

By Paul Fender

For those new to archery the term “Instinctive” describes both a general way of not precisely or consciously aiming and a specific style of archery developed and written about most notably by G. Fred Asbell.

It is briefly described in a document attached to my 2015 post, “Aiming Without a Sight”:


World Champion Paul Fender goes into greater depth about it in this new post:

A Perspective on Instinctive Aiming by Paul Fender

Over the years I have accumulated personally witnessed evidence that what is commonly called “instinctive shooting” just doesn’t work worth a darn. However, at the CA State Broadhead Tournament I got to witness evidence that it does work. I, a confirmed gap shooter (reference to this also in my above mentioned post), took third to two confirmed instinctive shooters. Oh, the horror!

I have always had a hard time with the idea of instinctive shooting. We’re told “It’s just like throwing a baseball.” A moments reflection though and we realize that that can’t possibly deliver the accuracy necessary for either hunting or target shooting. Sometimes it’s called “proprioception”, the unconscious perception of the relative position of our various body parts. Think about that for a minute. I don’t know it for a fact but I find it doubtful that this sense of proprioception is so precise that it can drive the difference in elevation of the bow arm to accommodate for a 25 yard shot versus a 15 yard shot. But I have seen instinctive shooters do just that. Then of course there is the argument that there is no such thing as instinctive shooting as humans are not born with any instinct for shooting a bow and arrow. It is a learned behavior.

I have run across apocryphal (accounts of uncertain validity) stories of informal studies of instinctive shooting. In these studies, the performance of shooters who consciously aim is compared to instinctive shooters. The most common format is to have the shooters shoot at a “target” like a laser dot projected onto a wall in a totally dark room. In some of these “studies” the instinctive shooters perform best, in others the aimers do best, and in yet others there is no measurable difference in performance. So even if we do accept these stories as being valid, it’s still a wash. However, let’s just keep these stories in the back of our mind for a bit, OK?

Some time ago I read in the 5/2010 issue of Scientific American an article titled “Uncanny Sight in the Blind” by Beatrice de Gelder. She is a professor and the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Tilburg University, Netherlands. Turns out that people who have gone blind due to injury to the visual cortex in the brain, yet whose eyes remain basically healthy have a “sense” termed “blind sight”.

People who have demonstrated blind sight are able to distinguish colors, shapes, and even emotions portrayed on other people’s faces, even though they are not conscious of having seen anything! One particularly striking case is that of a blind man who was able to successfully navigate an obstacle strewn hallway. Here is a link to a video of him accomplishing this:

What I found to be important and what has lead me down this long and tortuous path is that upon questioning, the blind man was not consciously aware of having perceived anything or having made any maneuvers to avoid the obstacles!

So, by accepting the stories about the instinctive shooting studies and their equivocal results, (yes I’m going out on a limb here) and combining them with the concept of blind sight I have arrived at a theory of instinctive shooting. For one thing, yes it can work. In order for it to work though, the arrow, or the bow’s shelf, or sight window, or other reference MUST be visible to the eye. These references are actually processed. They are used to drive what the shooter does with his body, much like the blind man in the hallway. However, the instinctive shooter has managed to train himself into a sort of blind sight condition in which this processing is no longer happening consciously. This processing is occurring in the more “primitive” areas of the brain. An oversimplified view of brain functions, but think of it as if this processing is occurring in the “reptile brain” we all have. Perhaps the term “instinctive” isn’t quite such a misnomer after all?

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