We all know intuitively what it feels like to "intend" a certain outcome or action. However, knowing what a thing is intuitively is different from having a deep introspective take on how the thing actually plays out in your own brain. In this Mental Model Monday, I go deep into the phenomology of intentions, and how you can create intentions and intentionality, as well as decide how much intentionality to have in any given situation.

Watch The Video

Edited Transcript Below

What I Learned About Intentions from Hypnotizing My Hands Together

I first started playing with intentions when I was maybe about 13, 14.

I was playing around with self-hypnosis. I a common hypnosis exercise where I hypnotized myself into believing my hands were glued together, that the harder I tried to get them apart, the more they would become stuck together. Then, I tried as hard as I could to pull them apart. I found no matter how much I struggled, I couldn't get them apart.

What was happening was my arms were tightening and doing some of the things you might do when you're actually trying hard to pull your hands apart, but they weren't actually moving outwards. After I played with this for a while, I decided to stop trying to pull them apart. Instead I focused on the part that was blocking me from pulling them apart. For me, it was located up in the right area of my forehead. Instead of pulling harder, I had to consciously let that block go. After I let it go, my hands came apart with no struggle at all.

I did this a number of times with various hypnosis exercises like forgetting my name, not being able to say my name,and not being able to say the word 'the', until I could implant that thing in my forehead without the hypnosis, and I could get rid of it when I wanted to. That part, it turns out, was how I experienced intentions.

Intentions Vs. Other Things

Intentions are different from desires. What you want is different from what you intend to do. I think there's value in separating the two and not getting them confused, so take some time to feel the difference between what it is to want something and what it is to intend to get that thing. They're also different from expectations or should. An intention is not this thing that you're supposed to do, it's something that you are going to do. It's a sense of resolve and purpose in you.

Exercise: What Do Intentions Feel Like

I think really getting a handle on what it feels like to have an intention, to have competing intentions, to drop an intention, is important. When you do that, you can get a certain sense of when you've unconsciously dropped an intention, and you can look to see what part of you needed that intention to be dropped, or what competing intention took precedence.

An exercise I recommend you do, if you want to try this, but you don't know self hypnosis, is to get an object and put it in front of you. Put it in yourself the intention “I'm not going to grab that object.” Then go ahead and grab it. Repeat this a number of times, and feel the moment when that intention slips from you. What does it feel like to have the intention? And what does it feel like for the intention to slip from your grasp? I think creating a trigger to notice when you get the feeling of dropping an intention is a very, very powerful experience to have.  Another great trigger is to notice when you have a hidden intention that's stopping you from doing the thing that you consciously are trying to do (such as when I had an intention preventing my hands from moving apart).

What Does Not Having Intentions Feel Like?

Sometimes when I'm playing basketbal,I'll shoot the ball and I realize I didn't actually have the intention to make the basket, I was just sort of going through these motions of moving my hand, but the intention wasn't there to make a basket. Similarly to how it is going through these motions of my arms tightening, but I wasn't actually moving my arm part apart.

I think this pattern of going through the motions without intending to get the result happens a lot in life. We have to be very, very careful of that because that can become a habit, and that's not something you want to happen. So being very aware of when do I lack an intention for the outcome that my actions suggest. Sometimes bringing that intention into our actions can be really powerful.

Exercise: Dropping All Intentions

I also think it's powerful to get comfortable with the reverse. which is going into somewhere without any intentions. You could do a quick mental centering exercise to get rid of intentions and feel how it feels to go into  a situation and be completely open to any experience

First, visualize the timeline of your life's past, present and future.  This image could be a line, or a 3-D box or you can a series of hills and valleys. Just some visualization of your past, where you were, your present, where you are now and your future, where you're going to be. 

What I do, I imagine it as this long cord. First, I cut the cord and I let the past drift away and all my worries about what has been, my pride, shame and joy and let my thoughts and intentions float away with that ribbon.

Then I look at my future. All the things I want to happen, all the things that I'm thinking about, all my fears, and I just cut that cord and let it float away as well.\

Finally I'm just left with this small sliver of the present, this little cord, and I let that float away too. 

It seems like I'm in blackness now, but then I notice there's something there in this blackness. It's my sense of identity, my sense of purpose, my sense of who I am and how I'm trying to be in the moment. Sometimes I'll let that dissolve as well, and just float into the Aether.

When you get good at this and quick with this, what it does is it just releases all your intentions without having to individually go through your body, (if you feel intentions), the voices in your head (if you hear intentions) or the images in your mind (if you see intentions), and instead releases all of them at once.

The Magic of Intentions

There’s something magic about intentions in that having them automatically makes your brain do things to help you reach your goal. Maxwell Maltz calls it the reticular activating system, and The Center for Applied Rationality calls it the inner simulator. It's this thing that when you have the intent to catch a ball, knows where to put your hand. It's this thing that when you have the intention to buy a car, you start noticing all the for sale signs for cars in an area. Your subconscious/system 1/ 1, starts pointing you and noticing the things you need for that intention.

I think intentions are very powerful because of that reticular activating system or inner simulator and pointing you to the right places. But again, it's not always about that. Sometimes you want to actually let go of intentions and finding that balance is a really powerful skill.

Finding the Right Level of Intentionality

I think there's something very powerful about both working with having intentions and working with not having them. In fact, I think there's sort of an art to this of finding the right amount of intention to have for a situation.

In the pick-up community, I’ve seen this called woo versus intent. Am I going out to my night just have to fun and see where the night takes me?(Woo) Or to have a sensual experience with a beautiful woman?(Intent).  If I’m too much about just seeing where the night takes me, I may find myself at the end of the night without having gotten an outcome I wanted.  On the other hand, if I’m too much about trying to get out and “make something happen”, I’ll miss opportunities and turn people off. Balancing those two is very, very important to getting a great outcome for any given night.

In the business world, this is called exploration vs. exploitation.  Exploration is about exploring various innovations, testing the market, and learning new things. Exploitation, is going out and saying, "I've already got this thing, my intention is now to get money from it."   

How much to focus on each aspect depends on looking at competitive dynamics, market evolution, and core competencies of your company. I think the art of figuring out how much intentionality to bring to a situation is an important skill to have in all areas of your life.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:45 PM

Especially appreciated the transcript - I'm a person who tends not to end up watching video-tutorial-esque-things and being able to read it was great.

This difference between "wanting" and "intending" seems to be a pretty natural explanation for akrasia. It often seems like we intend to do things but never get around to them, but now that I have this distinction it seems to me that, phenomenologically, what's happening is rather that I want to do something but never intend it (or lose the intention very quickly).*

This suggests that one way to combat akrasia might be to pay very close attention to one's intentions. I think the Complice platform tries to get you to do this with daily reviews and setting intentions for the next day (and with asking you "how are you going to make that happen" for things that you've assigned yourself several times but haven't done), but the real trick isn't just to write down what you think you want to do the next day, but to, while you're doing that, get that phenomenological feeling of intending to do it.

This also reminds me a little of Nate Soares' Replacing Guilt series. Speculation: you can't intend to do something unless all parts of you are on board. Thus, in order to intend to do something that you're having akrasia about, you have to convince whatever parts of you are resisting that it's a good idea. On the other hand, you can do something without intending to, and not just in the sense of doing it accidentally: you can spend hours surfing the internet without ever really having the intention to do that. So not all parts of you need to be on board for you to do something, only for you to intend to do it. Possible counterpoint: say you do something using willpower; you (e.g.) force yourself to sit down and study for a test. Did you intend to do that? Clearly not all parts of you were on board or you wouldn't have had to force yourself, but it seems like using that much willpower means you must have intended to do it. Or maybe not? Maybe this "intending" feeling implies not needing to use willpower, or at least not having internal conflict about doing the thing? I'm not sure.

Also, this explanation has implications for the original akrasia debate as begun by Plato in the Protagoras. It's been a long time since I read it, but if I remember, Plato argues that what's happening in seeming cases of akrasia (which he thought of as "doing something that you believe is a bad option") is not that you believe x is a bad option and do x at the same time, but rather you believe on some level, while you're doing x, that x is a good option, and later change your belief to believe it's a bad option and forget that you believed it was a good option. On my theory, what's happening is that you want to do not-x, but don't intend to do not-x, hence the feeling of conflict, because while you're doing x you want to do not-x.

On a meta-note, thanks for including the transcript.

Edit: I thought I had added the link to the wikipedia page about akrasia, but it disappeared, so edited to re-add.

Interesting. One thing I've noticed is that there are huge amounts of discussion of phenomenology is continental philosophy, with very little reference to exercises. I think that the exercises help immensely, particularly the one about (intending not to grab an object), then (grabbing it anyway).

I quite enjoyed this. I feel this has actually given me a better grasp on the concept of intention, and was generally written in very straightforward language, which I appreciate.

Exploration involves a level of impulsivity but aren't impulsive responses intentional to a certain degree? Humor me, I'm new.

I'm using intentions in a very narrow sense here, that is, a "held end state". If we loosen the definition of intentional to something more like "goal directed" I think that's correct.