Intent Load Theory

What it is: Intent Load Theory (ILT) is a unified field theory on human violence. It covers the hypothetical origins of human violence, its unique tendency to escalate to extremes, ritual and cathartic media interfacing with real violence, and a hypothesis of its finality.

Who I am: I’m a stuntman, filmmaker, action designer and motion capture performer of over 20 years. On the side I research human violence to understand how to make compelling action design, which has brought about this theory.

Why this theory matters: Theories on violence tend to fall into three categories: academic, and popular. The academic theories are distant, wordy, and incomprehensible, traits that mask their inability to posit the real origins of human violence. Popular theories are too passive, chocking up violence to simple moralizing or black-box evolutionary jargon. ILT’s approach is instead “grammatical”. Within the ILT framework, asking whether violence is “good” or “bad” is like asking whether the Japanese language is good or bad.

The difference between animal and human violence

When an animal fights another of its kind, the animal’s inability to utilize tools as weapons restricts it to using its anatomic weapons – claws, teeth, venom, etc. There are no intraspecific (lion vs. lion, bear vs. bear, etc.) fights to the death because animals have defenses that specifically withstand attacks from their own. No wildcard weapons or protections threatens to disrupt this balance. Raccoons don’t duel with knives, and bears don’t wear deer skins. This is why it’s practically impossible for an animal to kill one of its own during contests. ILT theorizes that we humans escalate violence and kill our own because we are uniquely equipped to use tools for war, and that this propensity to escalate violence is concomitant with human ritual, language, art, and other methods of deferring violence.

Let’s take a look at the neuroscience that makes human violence so unique.

The Mirror Neuron System

Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered that when macaque monkeys performed an action, such as grasping a banana, or witnessed someone else (monkey, human, or otherwise) grasping a banana, the same neuron cluster fired in the monkey’s brain. This “mirror neuron system” (MNS) not only helps the monkey understand the banana-grasping action but also interprets the other’s intention to grasp a banana. The MNS does this by loading the intents of the model and devising a virtualization of the action, which Rizzolatti calls an Internal Motor Representation (IMR). Rizzolatti a similar MNS within the human brain.

Rizzolatti discovered mirror neurons in a macaque monkey. The same neuron cluster that fired when the monkey grasped a banana also fired when the monkey saw a human grasp the banana. Perceiving a human’s intention to grasp the banana caused the same neuron cluster to fire.

Action Understanding

Proper action understanding allows boxers like Muhammed Ali to see punches coming a mile away.

Rizzolatti also noted that when the subject observes a model, the model’s intents are loaded into the subject’s MNS where they’re stored in a potential state. When the subject performs these actions, the MNS bridges the IMR with the subject’s motor system and creates action understanding. Action understanding helps the subject interpret actions more efficiently. If the subject has never thrown a punch, he won’t be able to see a punch coming. After throwing a thousand punches, he can throw up a block. After throwing a million punches, he can float like a butterfly.

Anatomy <-> Perception

Rizzolatti never posited how human violence is different from animal violence, but we can understand the difference in a hypothetical. In a fight between bears, if a bear puts its paw behind its back, the other bear doesn’t assume he’s reaching for a molotov cocktail. The bear simply assumes its opponent has its paw behind its back. Compare to this a fight between humans, when reaching behind the back will likely produce a weapon, and probably not a CD or a pamphlet. This is when the human IMR kicks into overdrive in an attempt to interpret what weapon, if any, will be produced by the opponent. ILT theorizes that humanity’s unique ability to use tools as weapons is concomitant with the human IMR’s ability to virtualize an opponent’s use of those weapons.

The rise of caveman politics - The Boston Globe

While some animal species use tools, none of them use tools as weapons. ILT offers a hypothesis as to why humans differ in this regard and how this difference came to be.

Generative Anthropology’s “Originary Scene”

In Generative Anthropology (GA) Eric Gans hypothesizes a “what-if” scenario at the beginning of humanity called the “Originary Scene.” Here we imagine hunters gathered around an animal carcass they hunted. In the case of animal hunters, the alpha divides up the meat as he sees fit, and betas can challenge him to become the new alpha. As explained earlier, the natural restrictions on animal violence to their anatomical weapons prevent duels to the death in these scenarios, subsequently eliminating the risk of contagious violence.

But in the case of humans, according to GA, tensions rose to a boiling point as the men argued over who would receive the spoils of the hunt. This might have been settled with a simple fist fight between an alpha and a challenger, which would have maintained the alpha-beta status quo. But a unique scenario emerged which indicated that an outbreak of interpersonal violence would be totally catastrophic.

GA posits that the only way to avoid this catastrophic violence was for someone to produce a “sign” of some kind, perhaps a hand signal or a new sound, which averted violence and focused the crowd’s attention on the dead animal instead of the conflict itself. The carcass was then divided up evenly, allowing the hunters to avoid full-scale war. This moment must have appeared miraculous to the hunters and designated a “sacred” center reminiscent of the Burning Bush episode. This moment moved us into a new social system more advanced than the simple alpha-beta system: the egalitarian, hunter-gatherer society. According to Gans, this moment is also the origin of language.

(In another post I hypothesize that a priesthood is how we maintain this egalitarianism. We might also hypothesize that the cooking fire in the middle of the originary scene is also Trumbull’s originary burnt offering altar. A lot could have happened here, really, but the hypothesis should seek as minimal an explanantion as possible.)

Pin on things you could find in a cave...

Side-note: the costs and benefits of egalitarianism

Our hunters have entered the egalitarian model of society. Seems great, huh? But there’s a problem at the heart egalitarianism. The paradox here is that egalitarianism grants a higher level of social participation for its beta members than in animal society, and yet its strict social rules demonstrate an understanding that human violence is so catastrophic that it must be kept in check in ways that are unknown in animal societies. While it’s tempting to chock egalitarianism up to benevolent leaders, the hypothesis here is that egalitarianism first emerged due to an increased threat of catastrophic violence.

ILT asks the question, What was this new risk of violence, first sensed by the hunters, which transitioned us into a new social arrangement? Why would we not keep falling back on the tried and true alpha-beta challenge system? How did humans move from the alpha-beta challenge system to the paradoxical egalitarian-catastrophic human system? GA doesn’t give details here, at least not yet. However, ILT can hypothesize the event at this transition.

The first threat of murder

Modern Western education posits that humans “eventually became evolved enough” to be dangerously violent, either due to our waivering between rationality and irrationality, and some ascribe our violence to our particularly religious nature. Thus it’s tempting for us to imagine a hunter simply “figuring out over time” that he could use a stone for a weapon against his fellow man. This is an unsatisfactory black box theory of violence that we also see in mainline theories on the origins of language, such as Shlain’s passing note in his book about how humans eventually evolved to talk is a similar black box theory. Language and weapons are massive steps in civilizational development that might not have been as gradual as we once thought, but instead occurred as events, like sudden chemical reactions. Just as Gans uses GA to provide an event-based hypothesis in the Origin of Language, ILT builds on the GA model to hypothesize an originary, violent event which triggered the transition into egalitarian society and ultimately set the stage for all future human violence.

In the scene with our hunters, we might also hypothesize a situation where the hunters had killed the animal with their bare hands. But the absence of hunting weapons would not have produced a heightened risk of catastrophic violence between the hunters themselves, and the worst we could expect is a violent fist fight. In this basic hand-to-hand duel, where no tools are used for weapons, the risk of death is negligable, so we might say the crisis potential for this scenario is 0.

Instead, we hypothesize that our hunters used the most basic lethal weapon to kill the animal: a blunt stone, a lethal instrument readily available in his surroundings.

World's Oldest Murder Mystery Was 430,000 Years in the Making
Early murder victim who was likely killed by a rock. Source:

After the hunt is over, a dispute may have taken place between two or more hunters which caused all the hunters to assume the potential for catastrophic warfare. This catastrophe would only be imaginable if stone weapons were involved. So what event triggered the transition from using a stone for hunting to using a stone for violence? I can think of four plausible scenarios:

  1. One hunter accidentally killed another with the stone. Assuming there are no “accidents” in the ancient mind, this might have been interpreted as intentional homicide, an attempt at cannibalism, etc., raising the specter of catastrophic war among all participants in the scene. This “accidental homicide hypothesis” is stronger than the intentional hypothesis, but it assumes that all the periphery would treat the accidental homicide as though it were intentional, which would still have required a leap in logic, which we might still minimize.
  2. Only one hunter had figured out how to use stones for hunting, and in the midst of a challenge from another hunter, our smart hunter threatened the unarmed challenger with a stone. This threat, at first, might have meant nothing to the challenger who could never imagine a rock being used as a weapon. Or perhaps he instantly caught on. Or maybe there was no threat. At any rate, after the hunter cracks the other in the skull, the periphery realized, either immediately or eventually, their own capacity to arm themselves with stones for warfare. When surrounding the spoils, this situation gives rise to the chance of catastrophic violence. But why would the periphery only figure out stone weapons after one of their own was killed? ILT posits that the human IMR, upon witnessing both the assailant armed with a rock and the victim killed by a stone, would have loaded the intents of both parties and simultaneously saw themselves as 1) potential victims and 2) potential stone-warriors. This acted like a “software update” among the tribe, and everyone went from fist-fighters to stone-warriors. What immediately followed this event? It might have been a standoff, it might have inaugurated the instution of the first death penalty by stoning, or both. In this scenario, the difference (delta) in potential violence between the two fighters, between fist and rock, is what spurns the entry into a new social contract. So we’ll call this the “Delta Vio Hypothesis” or simply “ΔVH.”
  3. (For the sake of thoroughness, there’s one more hypothesis, albeit a darkly comical one, called the “goat hypothesis.” In this scenario, one or more hunters identified with the dying animal, for example if the game was a goat. Goats emit a human-like (anthropophonic) cry and subsequently have long since been considered more cathartic than any other animal sacrifices. Whatever the animal, in hearing the cry, the hunters might have mentally replayed the hunt in their minds and imagined themselves killed similarly by stones from hunters, either intentionally or not. This “instant replay” wouldn’t be very useful until the hunters realized that an interpersonal conflict over the killed animal could be resolved by stoning. This doesn’t necessarily result in an immediate homicide, but it could have lead to the concept of threatening the use of a stone as a weapon in a dispute, so long as the target shared this interpretation. A threat with a stone would have previously been unthinkable, unless the hunters could have imagined them as tools interpersonal violence. We could call this the “goat hypothesis.”)

The Delta Vio (ΔV) Hypothesis

Of the three above scenarios, the “Delta Vio Hypothesis” of #2 is the most minimal and useful, as it 1) reduces the time between the use of stones for hunting and their subsequent use for interpersonal violence, 2) creates a system of capital punishment, 3) allows for the “software update” scenario when new weapons are introduced into the equation, and 4) democratizes violence so that physically weaker members can utilize tools intelligently to gain an advantage over physically stronger but otherwise less skilled members, which forms the basic game theory of egalitarian society. ILT theorizes that the first time two humans had different potentials for catastrophic violence (where Delta Vio was greater than zero), this brought about a new social equilibrium, bringing us into a more egalitarian society.

The standoff is a game theory where both sides strategically reveal some level of violence in order to motivate the opposition into a preferred course of action.

(There is an entire parallel study to be done on how human fertility factors into this equation. Fertility crises bear a huge weight on social development, but they are beyond the scope of ILT at the moment.)

The wildcards of Delta Vio

We now have to imagine the mindset of the hunters after the originary scene. Everyone can now use stones as weapons, and perhaps we have capital punishment by stoning. A new conflict arises between hunters, whose IMRs enter into a game theory of utilizing the maximally efficient weapon to counter the other. In this new social arrangement, a weaker hunter (perhaps a younger man, or a woman now), skilled with a rock, would have an advantage over a stronger alpha who has bad aim. We also now have the wildcard issue: if a challenger puts his hand behind his back, does he have a rock? The opponent is incentivized to grab a rock and act first. In this case, the risk for catastrophic violence, our ΔV, is the delta between Vα (fists) and Vω (rock). It becomes in everyone’s interest to acquire rocks.

We can then easily imagine ΔV increasing with the introduction of sharp rocks, bows and arrows, copper blades, iron blades, gunpowder, tanks, nukes, and black-hole guns. As some actors on the war stage acquire new weapons, it’s in everyone else’s interest to acquire those same weapons. As we adopt new violent technologies, ΔV balloons out of control.

And yet, as ΔV increases, hierarchies theoretically compress. If all people had guns, elites technically couldn’t oppress them using the same guns. So, hypothetically, as ΔV increases, assuming general democratization of weapons, the difference in hierarchy between bottom and top classes (Hα-Hω) ΔH would decrease. And vice versa. Democratized violence and hierarchical differentiation therefore have an inverse relationship. Hence this very simple equation (wip):

ΔV = 1 / ΔH

Because the enemy’s violent intents are loaded automatically by the subject, the moment the potential for violence arises, there’s an escalation to higher levels of violence. The moment a new level of weapon enters the equation, such as stone age warriors suddenly meeting warlords with bronze tools, or castles meeting canons, the new violence level is automatically simulated within the IMR like a rapid software update, shared by all actors in the scenario. Hierarchy decreases as a result, unless new innovations in warfare are introduced.

This is why humans escalate violence, rather than just “mimicking” it per Rene Girard’s incomplete theory of violence in Battling to the End.

The Civil War battle at Scarborough Castle demonstrated the power of cannons against outdated stone construction. © Historic England.

Catharsis and the role of violent media

The Colosseum in Rome stock image | Look and Learn

Violent crises like wars, riots, and terrorism trigger new, shared intent loads among the local community. Today, due to globalized media, the community is worldwide. The 24-hour news cycle, and the financial incentive to prioritize crisis reports, inundates the IMRs of the world with global, violent intents. These violent intents find their outlet in 1) violent outbreaks, 2) simulated physical violence (exercise, ax throwing, or whatever the latest exercise fad is), or 3) the witnessing of violence in fictional entertainment, sports, and sanctioned fighting. In this third outlet, the MNS tricks the audience into thinking they’re performing the cathartic action within a new IMR simulation, which temporarily “cleanses” the intent loads. Or at least, that’s the supposed purpose of cathartic media. From Aeschylus’s Persae to any of today’s Marvel franchises, producers are always working to “catch” these shared intent loads using innovative media-producing methods such as cutting edge storytelling, high impact action design, novel filmmaking methods, and advanced game development. De-escalation techniques are therefore a critical ethic not just to fend off potential global, apocalyptic violence, but also as an escape from binge-style media consumption.

Cathartic entertainment, ala the Hero’s Journey, appears to cleanse our brains of violence, but it’s really just a new IMR simulation temporarily injected into our MNS. The Hero’s Journey is a carefully crafted and performed piece of drama which acts as though it’s a solution to the real-life crisis. While we might derive some solutions from the entertainment, the rest of the simulation wears off after a short period of time, and we’re usually back where we started. This “IMR training” might trigger addictive dopamine responses in the brain, which don’t serve to unravel trauma, but only further serves to lock the viewer into a dependent relationship with the storyteller.

Propaganda works as long as nothing interrupts it. Icon by Gan Khoon Lay, The Noun Project

Storytellers might be able to re-train our IMRs to prevent further violent outbreaks in the wake of a crisis, and so propaganda might work. But propaganda always requires high levels of geographic and social restrictions and long time horizons, even paradoxically requiring violence itself, to be even nominally effective. And the best propagandists are well aware that a minuscule, uncontrolled crisis threatens to undo their entire propaganda campaign and remove them from power.

ILT summarized

Intent Load Theory states that violent crises are the primary drivers of behavioral change in humans due to the functions of the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) and its Internal Motor Representation (IMR) which simulates violence in other humans. The range of violent potentials (Delta Vio) and the differentiation of hierarchical castes (Delta H) are inversely related. Global news media has universalized violent intent loads far beyond their once-localized scale into dangerously high levels of trauma within the global audience. Media producers attempt to capitalize off these shared intent loads by designing art that captures as many of these traumatized viewers as possible, but their cathartic media serves less as a behavior-modifying utility than one of momentary deferral of violence, which can be rapidly undone by a new violent crisis. And so producers have an incentive to take on positions of power within the government or clergy in order to 1. push a propaganda campaign with the intention of limiting the scope of violence in the wake of a crisis and 2. utilize an enforcement structure to prevent uncontrolled crises from falsifying the hypothesis of their propaganda campaign.

Copyright 2022 Eric Jacobus

Rene Girard’s Battling to the End, 2009
Giacomo Rizzolatti’s Mirrors in the Brain, 2008
Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1973
Eric Gans’s Girardian Origins of Generative Anthropology, 2012
William Ridgeway’s Origin of Tragedy, 1910
H Clay Trumbull’s Threshold Covenant, 1906

"A very small step would lead man to the application of a sharp stone for cutting. When the edge became blunt the stone would be thrown away and another chosen, but after a while, accident, if not reflection, would show that a round stone would crack other stones, and thus [he] would learn to make sharp-edged stones for himself." (Clodd, Edward - THE STORY OF “ PRIMITIVE ” MAN, 1895)