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?