Forming an Intent

The work of a curious fellow

This web page is on a topic that I have wondered about. I would appreciate any feedback that you might be able to provide. Especially errors in concept or calculation. Please send an email to if you would care to comment.

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Intentions are necessary but not sufficient...

As a prerequisite for taking action, a person has to form an intent to do something. On this page I will look at the process of forming an intent. I better tell you right up front that I am not qualified to go into detail on the mental machinery involved.

The Human Brain
I do suspect that the brain is involved in the process, most likely the cerebral cortex part of the brain. Rather than deal with the machinery I will try to explain the process in terms of what I sense going on in my own head.

People proceed backwards into the future with their eyes firmly fixed on the past. This is not to be disparaged. It is just the way things are. It is from the past that we get all our information. The future holds only unrealized possible events not accessible to our senses. Until the passage of "now" sorts out which of these possibilities become real, only to slip immediately into the unchangeable past, we cannot process the information content of those events.

A healthy, wakeful human brain is a constantly running machine, doing tasks that no computer can approach. As events stream by us in their passage from the future to the past, our senses sample the information the events contain and the brain immediately sorts that sensory input into "important" and "not important". Probably the great majority of our sensory input goes straight into the bit bucket, leaving only traces, if anything, in the consciously accessible memory. The important stuff is stored for future access. This sensory input thread runs parallel to another thread I will call the thinking thread.

The thinking thread of mental activity is what we perceive as the stream of consciousness. There is an open question as to whether or not forming an intent or other activities that involve the consciousness take place entirely in the brain. See "Why is There Life" for much more on this question. For now let's just work with our intuitive sense of what consciousness is. People are always thinking about something, retrieving events from memory, comparing events and sorting them into good and bad, looking for patterns among them, letting one thought lead to another. Sometimes the sensory input thread passes a particularly important bit of information to the thinking thread, diverting the stream of consciousness to pay attention to an interesting or threatening stream of events. Or we may choose to pay attention to the sensory input thread as in watching a movie or listening to music.

There are probably other threads running concurrently with sensory input and thinking, taking care of keeping the body functioning as intended and minding other housekeeping chores, but forming an intent seems to me to be centered in the thinking thread. It is there that we can project ourselves into the future, imagining what it will be like, based on our stored information about the past and the results of previous sorting, sifting and rearranging that information in the thinking thread.

If our imagined future is perceived to be unfavorable, or not as favorable as we might like, we can decide in the thinking thread to take action that we believe will improve our situation. The decision to act may be only the first stage in the formation of intent that I set out to describe. If the desired future state of the universe is as simple as getting the sip of coffee that I mentioned on a previous page, then the decision to act may be followed immediately by action without a lot of thought. For more substantial changes we might formulate a plan and test its likelihood for success against the our experience. This may take a while before we come up with a fully formed intent.

Between intention and results is action.

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