Priming: The Science Side of Goals and Intentions

Last week I wrote about intentions and promised to add some science into the mix, and I mentioned the use of priming.

Looks like a giant eye to me.

Priming is basically when your response to something right now is affected by something that happened before. If we spend ten minutes looking at purple things in a book, you might be more likely to see the purple things while you go for a drive in the next hour. It gets much more complicated, and ends up relating to the discussions on intentions.

An Interesting New York Times Article: Priming Experiments & the Subconscious

There is a  NY Times article on priming  which explains an experiment where people held a cup of coffee for a stranger. Sometimes the coffee was hot, other times it was cold. The people then rated a hypothetical stranger that had nothing to do with anything. Those who held the cold coffee were more likely to judge the hypothetical person negatively than those who had held the hot coffee.

That article goes on to explain many little other ways that priming can work. People are more likely to tidy up if they smell a faint scent of cleaning liquid, they say. We are more likely to be stingy if we are playing a monetary game on a table with a briefcase on it than if the table has a backpack.

Priming & Goals

The article goes on to talk about how the “goals” that we have, such as to exercise, drink coffee, or mate, are like “neural software programs” that can only be run one at a time. That’s intense, right? The article itself is very intriguing and I recommend reading it if this kind of thing interests you. Here’s where my brain went with it:

Choosing The Things That Prime Our Brain

There are all kinds of things happening, all the time; the world is a huge collage of life and mess and beauty and pain. To some extent, we can choose what we want to notice most. The article makes it very clear that we cannot completely control this, and that is not what I am suggesting.

I do, however, think that since none of the cited experiments controlled for levels of mindfulness, there could be interesting findings if “time spent meditating each day” was taken into account, especially in relation to some of these goals. So let’s pretend that there is more hope than they make it seem like there is, shall we?

Right now, I can choose to focus on the sleeping dog, the sound of construction outside, the pretty tapestry on the wall, the bills in a stack that belong to someone else. Anything. According to that article, these things all may affect my actions in subtle ways. They may affect the words I use next, the way I feel about the first person who comments on this, or what I decide to make for dinner. According to me, I get to pick which ones are most important, at least sometimes, if I remember to.

Back to Intentions: What is My Background Goal Going to Be?

One of the ways that I use intentions is to have a vague sense of a goal. If I hold this goal or theme in mind sometimes, then I feel like I’m more likely to notice opportunities for it during my day. I also feel like there are certain times where I know this has happened.

An example:

Let’s say that I have a few goals currently. They include getting more exercise, getting more social contact, finding inspiration for short stories, and working on dog training. I don’t want to do them all the time every day, but they are general things I’d like to work on.

Now the day begins, and I have to get my work done on the computer. I have a few familiar choices. I can do it at home, I can do it at the coffee shop across the street, or I can do it at the coffee shop that is a bus ride away.

If my over arching goal of the day was to get more exercise,  I might be more likely to realize that the coffee shop a mile away allows me to get exercise before and after getting work done if I walk there. If my goal for the day was to focus on dog training over everything else, I might realize that saving time by not leaving the house would allow for extra dog training time. If my goal was to get inspiration, I might realize that the bus ride will be fun because I can people-watch there and at the faraway coffee place.

Does that example make sense? Because of the intentional attention I can pay to the thought “Today I would like to get more exercise,” I can be more likely to notice the opportunity for exercise as it naturally fits into the fabric of the day. This is the best explanation for how to use intentions, and it seems that the experiments are making it more clear than ever that these little things do matter.

How to Control the Little Things

These guys have been blooming for so many months; I adore them.

I guess one of the most daunting aspects of this whole thing is that the stimuli that seem to actually affect our minds are not always things we would even notice.  They say that trying to prime yourself is like trying to tickle yourself and it won’t work if you know you are doing it. However, I like to think of it more like planting seeds. Maybe intending to get more inspiration for short stories won’t necessarily lead to such a thing happening. But it might cause me to have that inclination to get on the bus indirectly, or at least to be more open to having the stories find me.

How do you feel about these studies? What kinds of things do you think may be influencing your subtle awareness at this very moment- a dirty dish near your computer? A clock ticking by your ear? The book you read last night? The video game you played yesterday?

Do you think that you can use the scientific notion of priming to achieve goals more effectively or would you prefer to do things without thinking about experiments?

How does the air feel on your face at this moment?

25 thoughts on “Priming: The Science Side of Goals and Intentions

  1. My air is pretty still, but cooler than it’s been in the desert lately. It tells me fall/winter are finally around the corner. My face is sort of dry and salty from hiking this morning and that is something I’m not so subtly aware of at the moment. It does bug me and makes me grumpy. The idea that I would write differently or feel differently with a clean face is worth exploring. I really like this post and the one prior mainly because my mind doesn’t often wonder to these types of things. I’m taking it all in and really enjoying your posts. Thank you.

    • I’m so happy you enjoy them. I think that my mind is naturally inclined towards lots of neurotic stuff because I’m always searching for causalities, reasons, connections. It helps that there are some positive outlets, such as this one, to explore such things 🙂

  2. I think it’s so true that we are influenced by even subtleties in our landscape that we may not even pay particular attention to. Having some awareness of this would likely influence what is priming us.
    I think just being more aware in our world would allow us to see opportunities and signs more often.We would notice our reaction to situations and instances and objects and be able to appreciate what is the best thing for us to do/be in that instant.
    Great post; I like how you keep making me think.

  3. I like that you keep coming by and that you’re willing to think! 🙂 I do feel like the days after I spend more time being mindful, I am more likely to notice my reactions to things. That is really so important..sometimes a reaction can be happening for hours before I realize what it’s from.

  4. I do like the idea of priming, and I plan to read the article you reference. It seems wonderful and powerful to be able to affect life by adjusting my priming. Maybe if I’m better primed I’ll pump out more and better prose.

    • I think they mention a study that showed once people had perfected their pound cake recipe and shared it with the world, they were then permanently primed to make the best possible prose, but could not always fully realize that truth themselves. I might be mis-remembering it though, not sure..

  5. Warm, still air cocoons me. There is a stark contrast between it and the air from earlier this week, which was cold and borrowing and chilled me to the marrow of my bones. The weather here is capricious! Summer! Winter! Summer again! – And all in the space of a few days!

    I believe in the effects of priming, and I believe that at any given moment, we can choose what will be our focus (mostly). What I wonder about, though, are the past events that prime us that cannot be changed and that still have effects. We’ve all met people cowed or crushed by a myriad little cruelties or the sometimes life-shattering brushes with evil that they could not control. These events echo, and effect the people months or years later. Even relatively trivial things can have lasting impact, like getting burned in a job performance review or being stood up for coffee. What are we supposed to do with the baggage of what has come before? I suppose active priming for each day could help reshape some of those ‘bent’ bits of psyche… but I think it will take courage and persistence. I also believe it entails a willingness to cry for the part of us that can never be the same, and to welcome the parts of us that are changed – and stop seeing those changed bits as an intruder.

    Happy belated Halloween!


    • Aniko, the experiment with the hot/cold coffee freaked me out a little for that reason. I would expect people to be affected by like, the attitude of that stranger- but not the temperature of the coffee! It is immense to think about it in terms of all of the things that have happened to us. The blatant ones and the subtle’s almost in some abstract way kind of like ghosts, isn’t it? The things that we have forgotten or didn’t notice impacting the present now in an invisible, smoky way.
      I do think that courage and persistence are probably key- there is this talk I just saw that I posted to the facebook page, but I’m going to link to it in this comment as well- It is about vulnerability and this lady who did many, many studies on various human things and how she found vulnerability to be one of the things that demanded true courage and also brought true joy. It feels applicable to writers! The link to the talk if you are interested is:

      I’m also going to explore the book Brandy suggested..if it’s the one I think it is, then it’s completely up the same alley!

  6. Oooooo…. I LOVE this!!!

    I caught a rare moment of peace and quiet the other night, which sychronicity allowed to last the precise amount of time it took for me to watch the documentary playing on the Sundance channel.

    The short film was a super-rare look into the highly private lives of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Specifically, most of the film footage was taken during the coldest winter weeks in Tibet.

    For the first time in documented history, the filmcrew was given access to the deeply secluded monestary during a mysterious “bouncing” meditation session. The monks simultaneously meditate for days on end — without break — on a specific “heat/elevation” meditation. The footage was stunning.

    The process involves focusing the body’s ‘chi’ energy into a state of sheer vibration; which, in turn, raises the body’s core temperature a STAGGERING five to ten degrees.

    The monks have notoriously refused this specific meditation to be studied, let alone witnessed. Needless to say, it had never before been filmed. When asked why, the eldest monk replied simply, “It is a dangerous process that would prove deadly to anyone not professionally trained in the techniques of physical self-preservation. The human body is not equipped to endure this kind of increase in internal temperature.”

    The monks practiced this meditation for several days, preceding a scheduled journey to the summit of the highest Himalayan Mountain.

    The monks set out for this hike in the midst of a record-setting blizzard, dressed in a mere groin cover. Barefoot. Silently, they marched in unison to the summit, in zero visibility blizzard conditions. Upon arrival, they knelt down — still in silent unison — and brought their face to the ground, laying in sleeping position for the night.

    For EXACTLY eight hours, each monk lay motionless, naked (basically), as the blizzard carried on. The snow melted as it touched their skin — ALL NIGHT. FOR EIGHT HOURS. It piled up around them, not ONCE sticking to their bodies.

    The narrator noted the scientific impossibility of this phenomenon. The human body does not possess an energy source strong enough to regulate an internal body temperature above freezing state, after eight hours of constant exposure to those elements.

    Scientifically impossible, and yet DOCUMENTED IN REAL TIME.

    Did I mention these monks were MOTIONLESS, and SLEEPING… for EIGHT HOURS, EXACTLY, IN UNISON??

    Intention is much more powerful than our awareness has the ability to comprehend.

    As you’ve inferred… Intentions are powerful, beyond what we know.

    As a sidenote, I classify your blog as not only my favorite; it is my drug. And I am your junkie. And it’s a new kind of high, when I read your stuff. My spirit goes “HOLY WOW YES YES YES!!!!”

    • I read your comment earlier as I was working and it made me smile for so long! I love that you feel such a connection to the writing that I do here. I will perhaps find that documentary, it seems quite intriguing.
      I am so sure that the mind and body are capable of so, so, so, so so so so much more than we commonly know and accept. The placebo effect alone is so amazing, I don’t fully understand how people haven’t made a huger deal out of it. Your body can heal, sometimes, just because it thinks it is going to. That’s amazing. The implications are immense- so many things can probably happen for us that we are not aware of because of that part of our brain that keeps us running after chocolate and sex and caves and safety. It’s amazing, really. Wow. Those monks are an amazing example of what could be possible. Thank you for sharing such a detailed description of it!

      • Thank you for entertaining my spontaneously excessive comments! Truly; I seldom comment on people’s posts, but when I do it is often a bit too long. Your blog however, consistently gets dominated by my nonsense… Thank you so much for indulging it. I can’t resist. Your thoughts are magic.

  7. Very interesting post, Jennifer. You say “I think that my mind is naturally inclined towards lots of neurotic stuff because I’m always searching for causalities, reasons, connections.” Your natural inclination led you to the NYTimes article, which illustrates that many of our responses, attitudes, behaviors are out of our conscious control. Reading it makes you uncomfortable, “neurotic.” As a defensive reaction you look for some way of restoring your sense of control over your own life through self-priming intentional conscious, and through writing a post about it. But this flurry of conscious activity: what if it has been caused by the psychological discomfort triggered by the article? It’s yet another external stimulus triggering your unconscious priming response, causing your behavior. There’s no escape — bwahaha!

    You wrote a comment on one of my recent posts about Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst. He’s famous for arguing that neurotic symptoms reveal the person’s unconscious desires. People try to repress their symptoms, but in doing so they wind up also repressing their desires, and so they become numb, unmotivated — “the walking dead.” According to the Lacanian premise, your fear of being controlled unconsciously by forces outside of your conscious control might mean that you really desire to let yourself go, to be carried away by your primal urges and passions. But you also desire the neurotic discomfort these passions instill in you. Why? Well of course you’d need years of intense and expensive psychoanalysis to figure that out!

    I’m not here to sell Lacan to you, because I think there are serious problems with his position; e.g., the victim of bullying secretly desires to be bullied and so on. But isn’t that very struggle highlighted by psychoanalytic theory — the struggle between conscious intent and unconscious desire — isn’t it the sort of conflict that fuels so many good stories?

    You write about finding inspiration for short stories. Is it possible to generate this sort of inspiration from conscious effort? Or does it come unbidden, unintended, unconsciously? Artists and writers are notorious for trying to short-circuit the conscious controls over their unconscious sources of inspiration. And so they turn to drink and never paint or write again — at least that’s the public image. There is some empirical evidence though that creative writers really are more neurotic than, say, accountants. Maybe a little neurosis is an occupational hazard, the price that must be paid for tapping into these dark and uncontrolled sources of inspiration and bringing them into the light of day.

    Do I have to add that I’m writing this comment because I’m currently not inspired to write the next fiction I have in mind, and that I’m secretly hoping that commenting here will prime the pump?

    • Hahaha you are amazing. I read your comment earlier today, and laughed once I got to the end. It took me on a nice big swing set of emotions between my sanity and neuroticism and everywhere in between. I hope your stories get written. I hope that the inspiration comes, I do think that in some ways, conscious effort *can* bring that inspiration for them. But it’s like seeds.
      Like when I throw in a collection of pepper seeds to the soil, I don’t know for sure if it will grow. I put it in the soil and I water it each day. Sometimes, it takes a few weeks for a seed to germinate, and since I’m new at it, it takes me by surprise that the pepper plants start sprouting up everywhere (and I mean everywhere..since I figured they were not going to sprout, I scattered their soil amidst other now, baby peppers sprouting wherever I put their soil because I figured nothing would grow from it..)
      And maybe that’s how inspiration is in some ways. We plant seeds, we don’t know for sure if they will grow; but sometimes they do. Sometimes they sprout up in places we didn’t expect, not in their neat little plots that we had planned. Interesting how “plot” works in both ways too here!
      Oh, Lacan. What I wouldn’t give to hang out with him for a bit. But not to do therapy with him. I’d be one of the patients that got mad my session was cut short.
      Thank you for getting me to dig deeper and think about this in new ways and see more facets of my own reaction!

  8. Jennifer, how very interesting! I hadn’t thought much about priming, but this gives much food for thought. I am thinking about how just remembering to be aware is kind of like priming to focus more on awareness. Where we turn our attention does prime the pump. Thanks for this post.

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