Human Neurological Development For NLP Practitioners

by Richard Bolstad.

What's Developmental Theory Got To Do With NLP?

Lately, I've enjoyed reading the models proposed by Robert Dilts, Nelson Zink and Peter Wrycza, Tad James, Wyatt Woodsmall and others to explain human development from an NLP perspective. It's important to understand how a child's neurology differs from an adults, especially if you work with children. It's also valuable to know a little about the territory when you invite a client back using Time Line Therapy TM, Reimprinting, or other time related NLP healing processes. It may even help us develop new and more precise techniques, if we know how human individualities emerge.

But that isn't why I've written this. This article is an introduction to an awesome story. Unbelievably, science is only just beginning to reveal this story. It's the story of how the human neurology develops over a lifetime, and how that relates to the things we see, hear and feel with growing human beings. I've written it in NLP terms because a knowledge of NLP seems to make it even more awesome. And best of all, it's my story, and it's your story. I've kept the theorising to a minimum. Feel free to do that yourself, as you enjoy reading on.

Intrauterine Development: What You Knew Before Birth.

A human being's development before birth is remarkable indeed. In nine months she or he expands from a single cell to become a being with round 15,000,000,000,000 cells. The neurology (the tissue which becomes the brain and spinal cord) appears within the first 3 weeks after conception; and has over 250,000,000 neural connections between its cells by birth. (Jensen p.235).

All the basic sensory skills emerge in the child's time in the uterus (womb). By the 16th week a flashlight placed against the mother's tummy causes the fetus to jump with surprise, and by the 29th week the baby actively turns towards the source of light. Similarly, by the 16th week the foetal heart rate will synchronise with voice rhythms or music (rapport). Babies prefer voices and classical music to drums and rock music, and will turn towards the higher female voice if given a choice between male and female voices. In one study, mothers read aloud a short story, twice daily during the last 12 weeks of their pregnancy. At birth, their babies showed a marked preference for this story, even when read by another person. (Schuster + Ashburn p.73).

If sugar syrup is injected into the amniotic cavity (where the fetus lies) the fetus will drink the amniotic fluid in. If the initial sugar injection was associated with a bright light, later on just shining the bright light on the mother's tummy will cause sucking (the response is anchored). Touch can be felt on all body surfaces by 20 weeks after conception, and many babies will press their back against the uterine wall if the mother strokes her abdomen. (Schuster + Ashburn p.73). >From some time near the 7th month in the womb, the baby begins responding to human speech by making subtle body movements, and by birth each individual baby has a set movement which corresponds to each specific phoneme (speech sound) in the languages used around it. So, for example, the sound "da" might produce a twitch of the left foot each time it is said. This kinaesthetic coding is the origin of auditory digital "thought" (which is how the Ad eye movement gets down left, instead of to the sides with the auditory movements). (Pearce p.3).

Understandably, emotional stress in the mother during this nine months has a major effect on the child. Research with pregnant monkeys results in the baby performing poorly on a range of neuromotor tests after birth. (Jensen p.240). Studies during World War 2 showed that babies of stressed mothers were hyperactive and cried more, and were 3 times as likely to have a major illness in their first 3 years (Schuster + Ashburn p.72). Taking care of mothers benefits both them and their children!

Birth And The Sensory Basis Of Bonding.

Birth, most of us would agree, is a fairly major change. The pressure on the baby's head in a normal labor is 1-2kg per square centimetre, for example. The change in sensory information at birth is total. Shortly before delivery, the baby's brain anticipates this change by releasing a hormone called ACTH. This hormone puts the baby on high alert, and travels across the placenta into the mother's body, starting the contractions of labour. It transforms the neurology on a scale only equalled by puberty. How well the baby's neurology survives the challenges of birth can be tested using the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioural Assessment scale. This test shows the value of the birth conditions proposed by French obstetrician Frederick Le Boyer: reduced light, warmed air, quiet talking, placing the baby on the mother's tummy for 5 minutes till the umbilical cord stops pulsing blood to it, then placing the baby in a warm bath, and finally having the baby breastfeed. (Schuster + Ashburn p.86).

Joseph Chilton Pearce points out that the newborn baby is preprogrammed to anticipate certain very specific sensory inputs immediately after birth. These include stroking by the mother (without which many mammal babies simply die), the sound of the mother's heartbeat, the taste of colostrum (the first "batch " of breast milk designed specifically for the baby: If a baby is born premature, for example, colostrum includes specific chemicals to speed lung maturity), and the smell of the mother's body (babies can identify their mother's breast milk by smell soon after birth).

Visually, the newborn instinctively searches for a human face. If one comes within 10-30cms of its eyes, it will spend 80% of its first hour looking at that face. In that case, by 45 minutes after birth, the parallax of the eyes (the muscular co-ordination to focus at various ranges and follow movement) will be fully functional. The baby will then tend to smile whenever a face is presented. If the baby does not see the face it seeks during that first 45 minutes, the smiling response will be delayed up to 3 months. This whole process parallels the "imprinting" by which baby ducklings follow round any object they see moving in the time after they hatch. It is a key element in the sensory bonding between mother and child (Pearce p.33-35). Research repeatedly demonstrates the importance of the birth experience. Sweden's Karolinsk Institute studied hundreds of cases of suicide in adults and found that suicide is four times more likely when a person's birth was by breech delivery, by forceps delivery, or caused lack of oxygen. The Institute hypothesised that the early brush with death at a time of "abandonment" by the mother's body is reanchored by rejection or similar stress in later life. (Bolstad p.48).

The First Year: Getting The Kinaesthetic System Up And Running.

Nearly one half of the growth in brain tissue after birth occurs during the first year. This growth includes not only the expansion of new areas (especially the cerebral cortex, where sensory representations and "thinking" occur) but also a change in the nature of the neurology. The neurons (nerve cells) grow a fatty substance called myelin around their connections. This is like insulation on a wire, and ensures that messages can get through from the central areas of the brain to the outer areas of the neurology. Myelinisation is still continuing outwards over several years after birth. As it does, the simple reflex actions of a newborn (like the startle reflex, where a newborn's arms and legs jerk out in response to a loud noise) are replaced by controlled responses.

By 5 months old, a baby will attend to a kinaesthetic stimulus (a touch) 3 times longer than a visual one, indicating that the kinaesthetic sense is dominant (Schuster + Ashburn p.144). Up till 7 months or so, the baby brings each new object to its mouth, to explore it kinesthetically, and it is only by the end of the first year that it fully trusts vision.

The development of kinaesthetic control over that first year is truly impressive. Not even able to turn it's head steadily at birth, the baby can usually hold its head up by 3 months, sit by 6 months, crawl by 8-9 months and walk a little by the end of the year.

By 10 months, hemispheric dominance is clearly established (one side - usually the left - of the cerebral cortex is more "in charge") and evidence of left or right handedness begins to emerge. At the universities of Wisconsin and Washington, researchers have studied the brain patterns of babies faced by a challenge such as a parent leaving the room. Children who react to a challenge like this with curiosity have more left hemispheric activity. Those who react with crying or panic have less left hemispheric activity. This second personality pattern is correlated with later anxiety, depression and learning disorders. Teaching parents to respond to their babies with more reassuring tones and actions can eliminate the problem in just a few sessions (Jensen, 251, 254). Traumas such as permanent separation from early caregivers will significantly affect this developmental process.

The baby's reaction to separation, then, depends on the feedback they get from their caregivers about whether the world can be trusted. The emotional ability to trust that a parent who goes away will come back is connected to the child's cognitive (thinking) ability to believe that objects in the world are constant - they don't just appear or disappear. This "object constancy" emerges at round 5 months. Video of 5 month old babies shows that, having been shown two dolls in one place and one in another, the babies will be surprised if there are not three dolls shown altogether a while later (in fact, the ability to add and subtract is also present at 5 months, these studies suggest) (Jensen p.249). The discovery of object constancy is what fascinates babies in the game "peek-a-boo", where a parent hides their head or an object, and then makes it appear again, to the delight of the child.

Most of the distinctions we term submodalities in NLP have emerged by the end of the first year; visual distinctions such as distance and colour, auditory subtleties such as identifying a parent's voice in a crowd, and so on. Memory is also fully intact, so that a 6 month old can remember a four step sequence of pictures after seeing it 5 times, and will still recall the sequence months later (Jensen, p.248). The ability to dissociate and to take second or third position is a much later development though, so trauma at this early age cannot be dealt with as effectively as after, say, 7 years old.

By a year old, many babies will have said their first words. These are preceded by months of babbling (constructing pseudo-sentences with the phonemes used in that person's language). They are also preceded by the use of symbolic kinaesthetic gestures (e.g. an open hand meaning "I want"). Research suggests that for every word they can say a baby understands a hundred words spoken by others, (Jensen, p.242) so by age one a baby has a grasp of quite a lot of what's said around them.

The Toddler and Preschool Years: The Age of Magic.

Although the child at age one has most of the psycho-neurological characteristics of an adult, the thinking processes of a child before the age of seven or so differ fundamentally from those of adults. This whole period could be described as pre-logical.

Between 1 year and 4 years old a bridge of connecting fibres called the corpus callosum grows between the two hemispheres of the cortex in the brain. The corpus callosum, which in western cultures is usually more fully developed in women rather than men, allows connection between visual/auditory memory and visual/auditory construct, and between thinking (auditory digital) and kinaesthetic feeling. This change seems to allow the child to transcend simple impulsive/emotional responses, and develop a sense of "self" and will. The process begins with kinaesthetic control such as "toilet training", and develops into a major shift in metaprogram from the matcher/rapport oriented twelve month old to the mismatching two year old. Saying "No" and "I won't" becomes an important affirmation of autonomy. The child is asserting the difference between first and second position (at times even against their own interests!).

Recent research suggests that even at 3 years old, a child can understand that others have their own subjective point of view, with beliefs the child knows are false and desires which the child does not share. This means, using a term from cognitive psychology, that the child has a "theory of mind". This "theory" is a key ingredient which is lacking in a person who is autistic and yet very intelligent (see, for example, Raymond in the film "Rain Man") (Boden, p. xiv).

By three years old, a child has an average vocabulary of 850 words, and begins to use more sophisticated language structures such as the questions NLP calls the metamodel (though they're likely to say "Who says?" rather than the more formal "According to whom?"). By age 3 a child has the language to describe past and future, and conceptualise a time line, and by age 5 the structure of time into weeks, months and years makes clear organisation of even a "through time" time line possible.

However, understanding of language is far from complete. The three year old will interpret words very concretely, so will not comprehend the multiple meanings and puns required to enjoy a "Knock Knock" joke. By age 5 a child will know that words can have metaphorical as well as concrete meaning (that saying a person is "sweet" is a result of a synaesthesia, not of a direct gustatory sampling). But the ability to really appreciate the Milton model patterns continues to expand until after age 11.

At age three, then, each word tends to have one meaning to the child, and that meaning is "a part of" the thing (so the child may be quite puzzled at the idea that they themself could have had a different name, for instance). Another interesting characteristic of early childhood speech is that not all of it is intended as communication. Much of it is simply the self talk that an adult will tend to do as silent auditory digital processing.

As an adult listens to a preschooler's speech, it's easy to assume that the child thinks exactly as an adult does. However, the child is still assimilating certain concepts we take for granted. For example, visual/auditory constructs (fantasies) will often not be distinguished from visual/auditory recalls (memories). The child may get very upset when a parent doesn't make a seat for an imaginary friend; or may say with utter conviction "I talked to a dragon last night" after listening to a story about dragons. Also, a child may not fully comprehend the "conservation" of qualities: for example that if you have six coins and spread them out on the table more, you still have only six coins because sixes is conserved.

Asked to perform a logical task, the young child will tend to chunk across rather than being able to chunk up and down. For example:

Adult: Tommy, what happens when it rains?
Child: The sky cries.
Adult: How does it happen?
Child: Because we cry.
Adult: What makes it rain?
Child: Because we have tears. (Schuster + Ashburn, p.215).

In the above example, an adult might explain with a cause and effect relationship; or if referring to tears might say "The sky and a person both have water [chunk up] and when it falls it causes tears for us, or rain for the sky [chunk down]." The young child's answer is more of an intuitive leap. In fact, the style of thinking of the preschooler is characteristic of the "unconscious mind" in an adult. This type of pre-logical thinking, combining fantasy and memory, is enabled by the corpus callosum. While it provides quick answers which are often intuitively correct, the child's increasing need to make better sense of the world drives it to a breakthrough at around age seven.

One place where the child seeks better answers most urgently is in play. Playing interactively with another child requires the very skills that preschoolers find challenging: the ability to take second and third position, and the ability to chunk up (to reach agreement). Children's play tends to follow a sequence from solitary play, to onlooking, to parallel play (doing the same activity next to another child), to associative play (borrowing objects, etc.), and finally to co-operative play (where roles may interact, and group goals are established). Usually this sequence, and the learning of conflict resolution skills, spans the age from 2-5 years old. (Schuster + Ashburn, p.316).

I Think, Therefore I Am: The Conscious Mind.

By 7 years old, myelinization of the neurology is 90% complete, and the focus in brain development shifts dramatically to the development of the dominant hemisphere (Pearce, p.23). In the period from age 7 to 11, most of the specific intellectual strategies for decision making and planning are installed. Many are installed by repeated rehearsal of adult life in play. Thought now conforms much more convincingly to the TOTE (Trigger, Operation, Test, Exit) model. Whereas the younger child was forming beliefs and "imprints" about the trustworthiness of the world, and their own lovability and ability to take charge of their own body; now, in middle childhood, beliefs about intellectual capability and potential for success are laid down.

This shift to "logical", conscious mind, processing is paralleled by a shift in moral thinking. Preschoolers beliefs about why something is "right" or "wrong" are often extremely concrete ("If you break three plates, even accidentally, while helping Mum, it's worse than if you break one plate in anger"). From around seven years, children tend to have internalised rights and wrongs, so that their own "conscience" monitors their behaviour. In this and other ways, the seven year old is an independent agent, "energetically separate" from their parents in the way a preschooler is not.

The ability of the seven year old to take second or third position visually is now complete, as are other subtle external visual skills such as peripheral vision and fine colour discrimination. In many ways, the person in middle childhood seems able to perform all the tasks we expect from citizens in our culture. Indeed, until about two centuries ago, they would often begin "earning their keep". But the development of their neurology still has one major surprise in store: Puberty.

The hypothalamus is a gland deep within the brain. Once it has matured sufficiently (two years earlier in girls than in boys) it overrides the inhibition of sex hormones and triggers a massive change in the neurology. Reproductively, this results in menstruation somewhere between 9.5 and 15.5 years of age in girls, and first nocturnal emissions of semen somewhere between 11.5 and 17.5 years of age in boys. It results in a growth spurt, in the change in relative size of breasts and sexual organs, and in significant emotional shifts. (Schuster + Ashburn, p.497). In the east, religious teachers would say it also results in the person's energy body being readied for the experience of Kundalini, or sexual-spiritual energy.

Significant changes in thinking style tend to occur as a result of puberty in our society. One is the development of abstract thought. While the child asks "Why?", "What?" and "How?", the adolescent is more fully able to ask "What if?". This enables them to be both more idealistic (espousing religious or political causes) and more cynical (rejecting social sham). It enables them to conduct complex "thought experiments" rather than only step by step concrete operations. It also makes them even more able to take second or third position. In clarifying who they are and what role they have in relationship to others, adolescents are often keenly self-conscious, to the extent of "posing" for an imaginary camera, constantly checking others' perception of them. It's as if the two metaprograms "sort by self" and "sort by others" were struggling for supremacy. The adolescent's success in creating a sense of identity is reflected in the quality of the one-to-one relationships they are able to create. This is the age when significant imprints are laid down about "identity" and about the person's potential to create loving relationships.

What's It All About?

Myelinisation of the neurology is not complete till around age 25. The number of neurological connections can continue to increase throughout the life however. Current research suggests that there is no across the board deterioration in cognitive ability before age 60-70, and that even after that any decline is usually insignificant. (Schuster + Ashburn, p.592). Verbal ability frequently increases steadily throughout the lifespan.

Many writers refer to the ongoing developmental changes of adult life in terms of response to establishing a career and a family in early adulthood, and a sense of mission and spiritual meaning in later adulthood. Some suggest that these stages involve whole new levels of cognitive style, where both - and logic increasingly replaces the either-or attitude of adolescence. In those ways, perhaps NLP too is now coming of age.

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: Website: