Presence, Intention, and Affordances 

{Triberti & Riva, 2016. Being Present in Action: A Theoretical Model About the “Interlocking” Between Intentions and Environmental Affordances. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:2052}


The sense of presence as a neuropsychological phenomenon has the central goal of control of agency and activity through the unconscious separation of “internal” and “external.” The experience of presence is the outcome of an intuitive meta-cognitive process that allows us to control our actions by comparing intentions and perceptions. One can feel more or less present in a given situation depending on the impression of being able to enact one’s intentions; this establishes a strong and fundamental link between the sense of presence and the enacting of intentions. The variations in the sense of presence allow one to adapt one’s action to the external environment continuously. Indeed, intentions, as the cognitive antecedents of action, are not static representations of the desired outcomes but dynamic processes able to adjust their representational content according to the opportunities or restrictions emerging in the environment. Each level of an intentional hierarchy (ranging from future-directed to present-directed, and motor intentions) can interlock with environmental affordances to promote a continuous stream of action and activity.

The Agent enacts his intentions in a World at three levels of complexity (1) as motor behavior, based on proprioceptive information coming from his body and his interaction with the physical properties of external objects (motor affordances interacting with motor intention giving rise to/allowing for motor behavior); (2) as proximal or contextual behavior, based on the perception of environmental functions and affordances (proximal affordances interacting with proximal intention giving rise to/allowing for contextual behavior); and (3) as future behavior, based on the prefiguring or simulation of action plans (distal affordances interacting with distal intention giving rise to/allowing for future behavior).

The sense of being present in a situation comes from the impression of being able to transform intentions into actions and control one’s agency in the world, which  depends on the success of the interlocking process at any of the three levels. In this sense, any intentional hierarchy layer has to interlock with the respective environmental affordances. Motor intentions have to interlock with the ready-to-hand physical properties, proximal intentions have to interlock with tools or obstacles present in the here-and-now environment, and distal-abstract intentions have to interlock with the conceptualized action plans that are part of the society’s cultural background. Every intentional level interlocks with a precise level of the world’s opportunities for action.

The sense of presence is a unitary feeling, but on the process side, it can be divided into three phylogenetically different layers or sub-processes. The conscious self is built on a collection of “primordial feelings” constituted by interoceptive, proprioceptive, and motor information coming from the body (proto-self), which allow the organism to distinguish itself from the external environment. The mostly unconscious proto-presence layer is in symmetry with the proprioceptive proto-self. Proto-presence is the process of internal and external separation related to proprioception and motor control; its object is the basic distinction between self and non-self without differentiating the characteristics of the external objects. A sense of proto-presence allows us to monitor whether motor intentions are being correctly enacted by our body, regardless of the external environment.

At the second level, the core self is related to the perceptual differentiation between the self and the recognized external object. The core-presence layer is conscious of here-and-now and is in symmetry with the perceptual core self. Core presence is related to the sensory experience of the environment. At this layer, the agent starts to interact with the objects. The “external” is specified at the level of affordances for actions. Intentions are enacted, and actions are monitored for expected effects giving rise to a feeling of presence and agency.

At the third level, the autobiographical self is related to the emergence of consciousness and symbolic or categorical knowledge. Using language, we represent {or construct} the events in our personal story and formulate abstract action plans oriented to the distant future. The extended presence layer is conscious of the self in relation with the world and is in symmetry with the conceptual autobiographical self. Extended presence requires intellectually or emotionally significant content generated from monitoring the enacting of abstract or general objectives into complex action plans.


The dynamic theory of intention (Pacherie, 2006, 2008) distinguishes three layers of distal, proximal, and motor intentions forming an “intentional cascade” with distal intentions generating proximal intentions and proximal intentions generating motor intentions.

Motor intentions strictly depend on the physical environment where the movement is about to occur, appearing immediately before the movement itself. They develop at a micro-present level and guide the motor components of the action (i.e., how one should physically act); they are mostly unconscious (e.g., “I’m moving my hands on the keyboard this way to write”). Motor representations can be fully associated with readiness potential.

Proximal intentions constitute the conscious antecedents of a given action, developing at the level of the present time (e.g., “Now I will write an essay to pass my university exam”) and anchoring the action plan in the current situation. Enacting a proximal intention means identifying the environmental affordances that permit the activation of the behavior. An agent should perceive and identify the action opportunities existing within the environment, involving identifying the functions of tools, the limits imposed by obstacles, or the possibility of moving to a different environment.

Distal intentions develop at potentially large time scales and represent abstract reasoning about means and plans (e.g., “I want to become a professional”). They provide proximal intentions with an action plan that may still be mostly descriptive and abstract and are not directly related to the action context. They entail conscious, deliberate decisions, abstract and descriptive representations, and mental time travel as a cognitive adaptation allowing humans to simulate contingencies and consequences for future actions.

How can abstract intentions guide voluntary actions?

An agent should know whether they can enact a given intention or not, already at the time when the intention is distant-future directed, abstract, and merely descriptive, still not specified into physical actions and micro-movements at the motor level, making intentions the object of a cognitive or intuitive evaluation that authorizes them to proceed down the cascade until the initiation and the monitoring of behavior. Mental representations (and intentions) do not represent the state of the external world but the state of one’s engagement in the world. Intentions reflect the opportunities for enacting action, becoming “simulated affordances” that illustrate what reality affords to enact behavior at any level of information processing characterized by an external world-dependent requisite to be satisfied and “interlocking” each level of the intentional hierarchy with the external world in a predictive model of the future.

The fundamental function of the brain is to reduce the inconsistency between predictions about the world and the world as it is perceived or, to monitor the divergence between our motivations and needs and the state of the coupling between the individual and his environment. This inconsistency or divergence is the free energy that has to be maintained at the lowest possible level to avoid surprises. The brain continuously generates prediction models based on noisy sensory inputs to represent future states of the body and the external world.

The motor intention directly informs the movement by interlocking with physical objects and properties that make possible the actual performance. Spatial and temporal limitations belong to this category. A cognitive process with representational content that is tangible and can be directly manipulated may become a motor intention.

When the action is initiated, motor affordances may appear, informing how one should perform the physical movement, and proximal intentions are transformed into the best set of motor intentions for the situation. This reduces the free energy resulting from the confrontation between the desired state (the representational content of the intention) and the actual state of the world.

The proximal intention interlocks with environmental affordances, conceived as action opportunities, by identifying sets of functions, rules, and provisions in the form of possible action courses, transforming the distal intention from a general goal into action plans. The representational content of the proximal intention is perceived as a concrete opportunity for action in the external world. The intention has to be specified in the here-and-now through matching action guides with the concrete action opportunities existing in the current situation while proximal affordances are approached. This is the step from distal to proximal.

The distal intention interlocks with socio-cultural conditions of the imagined “possible world” that makes the representational content thinkable in terms of desirable outcomes for the agent and the context allowing for several possible courses of action one could take while both the intention and the desired state exist just in abstract, imaginative terms. As general opportunities for actions appear and match with the distal intention, proximal intentions are generated in the here-and-now as described above. By doing this, the agent progressively fulfills his distal intention and the entire intentional cascade. The distal intention has to match with thinkable opportunities in the world.