Satisfaction Levers

by ig0r3 min read11th Feb 20175 comments


Personal Blog

(Cross-posted on my blog:

I believe gnawing and uncomfortable sensations (nihilism, restlessness, etc) that one may not quite understand how to resolve are a manifestation of poorly understood desires, and there are concrete practices one can develop to help understand and resolve these sensations. We’ve come to associate certain sensations in our stomach with the idea of hunger because they are resolved by putting certain types of objects into our mouth and chewing. What if we didn’t know about food — how would we understand “hunger”? What does this say about a complex sensation like “anxiety”?

The human mind can be thought of as a machine that produces and satisfies desires. We become familiar with these desires from birth. When we exit the womb we don’t yet know how to breathe, but it is likely that we already desire to. It appears as though the mere exposure to air is sufficient to make the newborn aware that “breathing in” is an option available to it, and that upon doing so it comes to realize that this breathing thing satisfies some gnawing feeling (a desire for air). This is the mind’s first exposure to a “satisfaction lever” — an affordance for desire-satisfaction. As the mind matures it becomes aware of (produces!) new desires for itself: mother, food, stimulus, friends, approval, status, money, expression, meaning, etc. We create habits, both “good” and “bad”, that create their own desires. Pulling satisfaction levers gives us access to objects of desire — the things that can be taken from outside the organism and brought in — which temporarily satisfy some desire.

This may feel strange, but it seems that there is no a priori relationship between the sensations of desire and the corresponding objects that satisfy them. From our point of view, it feels intuitive that the hunger sensation in the stomach would logically be related to a desire for food. But as we can see with children, they often have little sense of when they are hungry or thirsty or sleepy and often adults must force some levers upon them — often in response to crankiness or general antisocial behavior on the part of the child. Over many repetitions, as the sensations of desire present themselves and are then followed by their satisfaction with a familiar pattern of objects — available through the pulling of satisfaction levers — the mind makes the association stronger and stronger until it just “is”. It is hard to imagine alternative manifestations of the feeling of hunger.

As the mind matures and continues to manufacture new desires, we must continue to seek the satisfaction levers that satiate them. Without a parent paying attention to our whining and offering us potential levers, we must seek them out on our own. This becomes especially tricky with desires that only rear their heads every once in awhile rather than on a daily basis. The ability to satisfy feelings of having low energy with exercise is a non-intuitive one, but once a habit is established the lever becomes one we can easily reach for because we know it’s there. However, often minds find themselves experiencing frustrating sensations that they don’t associate with obvious levers. Feelings described with words such as anxiety, restlessness, ennui, or nihilism may fall into this category. To expect to reason from the raw sensations to the corresponding action which would satisfy them seems exceptionally difficult. A more bountiful approach is to find some potential satisfaction levers to pull and pay attention to what happens to these ill-defined sensations.

Furthermore, there seems to be a capacity where we can seek out new levers, even if it is not clear what they may be for. Sometimes we accidentally pull a lever that gives us some unexpected feeling of relief or pleasure. This seems to be the satisfaction of a desire that one was not aware of or could not previously articulate. This is an important feeling. When this happens, one can take note of the relationship and begin building a list of “non-obvious satisfaction levers”. Then, periodically, one can scan this list. By allowing the mind to imagine pulling on one of these levers, it can feel out whether at that time it would satisfy some hidden, poorly understood desire. At the same time, by starting to map which levers satisfy which kinds of feelings, we are able to better understand and describe these amorphous feelings of desire.

Some ideas for satisfaction levers that may relate to complex, hard to describe desires:

  1. Cultivating presence and mindfulness: paying attention to the moment on a purely physical level rather than to thoughts and ideas generated
  2. Creating objects: anything from abstract art to software to social experiences
  3. Destroying objects: getting rid of stuff, tearing something down into its parts for potential reuse, clearing away or reorganizing space
  4. Taking physical or social risks: seeking out unfamiliar manifestations of fear


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:18 PM
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It seems to me like you make quite definite claims about how desires get acquired without referencing any scientific work about the subject.

Have you read the relevant work and just don't want to go through the work of adding citations, or is the post mainly speculation?

If I have a stimulus of a physical sensation like a tense throat that's tense due to emotions that I can't immediately label trying out different stimuli isn't the only way to deal with them. Eugine Gendlin's Focusing is another way to get at the underlying meaning of the emotions.

You can't reason your way to where anxiety comes from but you can feel into it and verbalize the cause with a process like Focusing.

To me, this felt more like speculation which was certainly informed by many things I've read in the past but nothing particular came to mind with the exception of the obvious reference to Deleuze. A kind of applied Deleuzian psychiatry, although I'm not sure he would agree with this sort of application. (

Good point regarding Focusing, and I do agree that it is closely related. I've only listened to the audiobook, is there a work by Gendlin you would recommend? Upon reflection, it seems one of the main insights I was trying to point at here is the lack of logical connection between the qualia of desire and the object it seeks (the machine it seeks to connect to, in D&G's terminology). The mental act of seeking out levers to pull would be equivalent to Focusing here, I think?

Good point regarding Focusing, and I do agree that it is closely related. I've only listened to the audiobook, is there a work by Gendlin you would recommend?

I personally had enough training from other sources to pick up the technique from the book. From what I have seen with how various people in this community interact with Focusing, it's however not easy to pick up all the skills from a book. I have successfully taught the technique to LW people who had trouble getting it to work by in-person teaching but there are people whom I didn't teach the skill successfully. In those circumstances reading a book won't do the trick either.

The connection isn't logical but if you connect with the physical sensation and give the feeling a handle it's possible to ask questions about what's needed for the release. It's just about connecting with your mind on a level where you listen.

The qualia of the physical sensation alone isn't enough. It also needs a connection to that qualia, the resonating handle, a question and listening but it's not required to actually try different solutions to see whether on of those solutions releases the feeling. The feeling knows what it needs.

Even outside of that deliberate process a lot of the information is available through normal intuition.

This is quite a wonderful frame that makes it easier to think about several things I was having trouble thinking clearly about. Thank you.

Related to 1. You can get a double whammy by having your mindfulness practice be a CNS training routine as well eg yoga, feldenkrais, alexander method etc.

Related to 2. Creativity can be directly trained, I link this so much I should just turn it into a post:

Related to 3. Ruthless prioritization has many downstream positive effects when trained directly. I recommend Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

1 helps a lot with 4 as well, as you start seeing what fear is made of, which has several large milestones in positive impact on quality of life AFAICT.

Yes that Cleese piece is great, thanks for sharing.