Benefits to NLP Practice from Cognitive Neuroscience

(c) Richard Bolstad

Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Alchemy and Chemistry: A Metaphor

Steve Andreas is a chemist and NLP Trainer. In a recent article he questions the value of neuroscience for NLP Practitioners. As an admirer of chemistry, NLP, neuroscience and Steve's work, I want to present an alternative perspective. Once, there was no chemistry; only alchemy. In order to protect the developing science of modern chemistry from the negative censure (indeed ridicule) to which alchemy was being subjected in the 18th century, academic writers during the scientific Enlightenment attempted, for the sake of survival, to separate and divorce the "new" chemistry from the "old" practices of alchemy. The result was an explosion of chemistry research which eventually yielded enormous practical benefits. Few chemists would now be willing to ignore the scientific accumulation of chemistry and trust to their clinical experiences alone. Few chemists would now be comfortable using the terminology of alchemy (such as the division of substances into the four elements of Geek philosophy, even with the medieval addition of ether, mercury and sulphur). And few chemists are now bothered by the more fanciful alchemical pursuits of the philosopher's stone, the elixir of immortality etc. In the same way, medical hypnotherapists no longer call themselves Mesmerists and no longer explain what they are doing by reference to animal magnetism. Similarly, I would not recommend that NLP coaches trust their clinical experiments alone, use outdated nomenclature such as "the unconscious mind" (without noting which brain structures they refer to), or pursue goals such as categorising clients by preferred sensory system. Following are just a few examples of how neuroscience guides my choices as an NLP Practitioner.

I'm A Kinesthetic So I Can't Do A Visual Swish

The first contribution of external research to NLP practice was perhaps the demonstration (in research) that humans could not usefully be grouped by personality into "Visuals", "Auditories" and "Kinesthetics". Few NLP trainings now teach this naive personality typing, which is first found in William James work in 1890, and is still evident in popular motivational courses such as the original CD series by Anthony Robbins: "Unlimited Power". If we continue to believe in the factual existence of metaphorical ideas such as "Id", "Ego", "Superego", "Parent", "Adult", "Child", "Unconscious mind", "Neurological levels" and "Parts" (and if we continue to write about these in our literature without being able to reference them to real brain regions and structures) we too will be the source of understandable ridicule over the next generation. In neuroscientific terms, these concepts are as antiquated as the four elements of Greek philosophy.

Should We Set Goals With Our conscious Mind?

Carmen Bostic St. Clair and John Grinder suggested that there were some errors in the original coding of NLP. One of these, they said, was the lack of emphasis on the unconscious mind being in charge of ecological change-work (Bostic St Clair and Grinder, 2002). They describe a change process in which they have the person enter a "know-nothing state", which is then anchored to the situations in which the person wants to change. They emphasise that "At no time does the client attempt to consciously formulate what differences (neither the desired state, the new resource nor the preferred behaviour) they desire to occur in that context. Thus at the end of the session, the client knows something important has shifted but typically has no conscious access to the specific differences that are available." I do not need to enter into a philosophical discussion about the merits of "the unconscious mind" or "content-free change" or any other imaginary concept to explain why this is an unhelpful idea. This "process" is based on a neurological error.

To understand how the "unconscious mind" operates in neurological terms, let me explain a little about the brain and memory. At one time in my life, I needed to use my conscious mind to tie my shoelaces. Nowdays, my "unconscious mind" performs that function. What do I mean when I say that last sentence? I mean that another area of the brain now runs my shoelace tying strategy automatically when it is triggered by the sight of my shoes untied. Even a person severely affected by the memory loss of Alzheimer's disease may continue for some time to be able to tie their shoelaces, because such strategies are stored in areas of the brain less affected by that condition (Schacter, 1996, p 134-137). Such memories are called "procedural memories".

There is another type of memory which patients with Alzheimer's continue to have too. Memory researcher Daniel Schacter discusses the results of an experiment with words which reveals this other type of memory. First, he shows people a series of words, each of which is to be studied carefully for 5 seconds. The first set of words are: assassin, octopus, avocado, mystery, sheriff, climate. Next, he shows people a second set of words and asks if any of this second set were in the first set. The second set are: twilight, assassin, dinosaur, mystery.
If your memory functions well, you recognised two of these from the first list. Next, Schacter asks people to complete the following English words by filling in the blanks. Third set: ch----nk, o-t--us, -og-y---, -l-m-te.

Most people who have seen the first set of words have difficulty coming up with two in this third set of words (chipmunk and bogeyman) but find octopus and climate rather obvious. That's because your memory has been "primed" by studying the first set. Now, here's the interesting thing. Priming also works for people with Alzheimer's disease, who cannot recall whether any of the second set were in the first set. Priming even works for people who are exposed to spoken information when they are unconscious due to anaesthetic! (Schacter, 1996, p 170-172). Whereas conscious memory requires activation of the frontal cortex, the unconscious memories of priming and the unconscious memories of a procedure such as shoelace tying are stored deeper in the brain. These other types of memory/skill are unconscious, and they are very useful. We do not need to make such memory systems conscious. Unfortunately, these unconscious memories operate on automatic. They can be "primed" by any irrelevant and even harmful stimuli which a person happens to come across.

Phineas Gage, a famous 19th century railway worker who had his frontal lobe damaged, could be primed to behave impulsively by all sorts of random events, such as the availability of alcohol in his immediate environment. What he had lost was the ability to decide which things he would respond to. The function of the frontal cortex is to make decisions. Decision-making cannot be "transferred to the unconscious mind" because the unconscious mind is simply those areas of the brain that are functioning without conscious (including frontal cortex) decision-making. The unconscious mind, then, can be trusted to do and to remember many things that your conscious mind cannot do or remember. It has far more resources than the conscious mind. But it cannot be trusted to make decisions for you, because it is not, in that sense, a decision-making instrument. If you consult it (either in trance or by using a pendulum, tarot cards or any other divining system) it will respond with whatever it has been primed to respond with. I say this with some sense of urgency before we consign 6 million years of evolution of the frontal cortex to the NLP dustbin.

Dusting Off Meta-states To See The Submodalities

In his article "How Meta-states Leaves NLP for Dust", L. Michael Hall claims "In 1999, Dr. Bodenhamer and I published The Structure of Excellence that challenged the whole idea of "submodalities" as involving any "sub" level and showed how that the features, distinctions, and qualities that we have called "submodalities" are actually "meta" modalities. This accorded with what other NLP leaders and thinkers had been saying for years, and so was not all that new. This explains how and why some "submodalities" have from the beginning of NLP also been classified as "Meta-Programs." How could they be both? How could "Associated/ Dissociated" be a submodality in every system and a meta-program? How could "Global/Specific" be both a Meta-Program and also the submodality of "Zoom in/ Zoom out"?" Actually, as I explain in my book RESOLVE, the individual submodalities are mediated by specific little brain areas inside the specialised Visual, Kinesthetic and Auditory Cortex areas. They very clearly ARE sub-modalities (using the neurological term modalities to mean sensory systems). However this does not mean that they are required to be a separate category to the distinctions of values and metaprograms. Submodalities certainly can be expected to influence our metacognitions such as values; indeed that is the whole point of their existence. For example, the estimate of distance to an object is made by an organism's brain not merely to create a tidy map of the world, but to establish which things are most important (ie valued). A sabre toothed tiger on a distant hilltop is not as important as one at the cave mouth. Due to feedback mechanisms, things that are valued from previous criteria are perceived as closer visually. Researchers demonstrate that people aiming for a physical target that is worth more money consistently estimate the target to be closer than it is. The detailed response to significant stimuli is pretty much the same in the brain as the response to abstract associated stimuli. To paraphrase Gandhi (who said "To the starving man, food is God.") to the addict, the syringe is a high level value. You certainly do get submodality shifts with values changes and thus you certainly can change values and metaprograms with submodality shifts. Thus modern neurological research into the neurological basis of submodalities outframes the philosophical question about whether submodalities are "meta" or "sub", and shows us what submodality shifts can be used for.

Memory Obstruction Versus Memory Reconsolidation

Our growing neurological understanding of the consolidation and reconsolidation of memories is a particularly important issue for PTSD treatments such as the NLP trauma process and eye movement integration. We now have research showing that rapid side-to-side eye movements during an event or during active recall of an event prevent the recording of even short term memory traces, and that the result is not a re-ordering of those memories but an interference with the neural circuitry of the memory being formed or reconsolidated (see for example, Engelhard et alia, 2010). In the same way, getting a person to take a drug that prevents neural networks forming (eg a PKMzeta inhibitor) can obstruct memory formation AND memory reconsolidation, but at the expense of the memory (there is a booming research business designing chemical treatments to eliminate traumatic memories entirely by destroying the connections that hold the memory). This is an entirely different process to altering the perceptual position of consolidated long term memories towards what memory researchers refer to as observer memory (i.e. what NLP, with alchemical obstinacy, refers to as dissociation). Observer memory is a type of reconsolidation that is done naturally in the brain over long periods of time, especially to distressing memories, and it also seems to require frontal cortex maturation (i.e. it cannot easily be done by a child of say 5 years old). Clinically, we would be better doing eye movement processes with younger children, and with people very close in time to the events they are coping with. The possible loss of memory clarity would be a small price to pay for an effective protection from long term traumatisation. With longer term issues, the movie theatre technique may give us better meaning elaboration and subsequent learning about the events being processed.

Mirror Neurons And Real Empathy

Early NLP books suggest that rapport is a specific synchronisation of behaviours which causes leading, and should in no way be assumed to enhance real empathy. "Don't get fooled by the "feeling" that you are understanding the other person", Bandler and Grinder sometimes warn. This turns out to be contrary to the discoveries of neuroscience and of measurement of brain waves, pulse and breathing in living humans. John Gottman's research on couples having disagreements shows that brain synchronisation and behavioural synchronisation go hand in hand with, and are a reliable predictor of accuracy of, empathy (Gottman, 1999, p 27). When someone synchronises behaviourally with someone else, they actually synchronise in their brain (they feel the emotions themselves) and they are then better able to name the specific emotion that the person reports feeling. Rapport is, therefore, a two way street, not a mere trick. Copying others behaviour and aiming NOT to feel empathy, as recommended by some of these early NLP texts, is a recipe for profoundly pathological behaviour, which runs contrary to what we can observe happening in the brain during normal human relationships. (Note that despite recent challenges, the mirror neuron system remains the best hypothesis to explain much learning and social behaviour. Recent research simply makes it clear that mirror neurons, if they function in humans as in monkeys, do not respond to "intentional behaviour" in others but rather give us a simple internal copy of the others' behaviour from which we can assess intention).

Combining Neurology and Practice

Since human beings are systems, as we work with a client, the pattern of their neurology is revealed in the pattern of their behaviour with us. If we were able to observe their behaviour fully, it is possible that we would get all of the information we need about their neurology. However this is like saying that if we observe our chemistry experiment carefully we can get all the information we need to repeat it in useful ways, and we don't need to know the chemical equation that explains what is happening at the molecular level. The knowledge of the molecular level speeds up our understanding of what we observe empirically, however, and sometimes provides additional and even counter-intuitive information that enables new breakthroughs. We can then return to our empirical observation and easier "notice" the expected results.

In the same way, for example, it has been known for thousands of years that if you sleep after study, you may remember things better. Most students know that ... sort of. The research on consolidation of memories shows that memories are transferred from short term storage (in the hippocampus, where they are extensively contextualised to place and time) to long term storage (in the cortex as a whole, where they are cross-referenced to all other experiences and become the basis of what we call "generalisations") largely during rest time (to use a computer analogy, the files will not be backed up into permanent storage until we have enough RAM free to do so easily, and that requires shutting down many systems especially movement and current visual input). Consequently, if you have 8 hours to cram for an exam, research shows that you are better to do 3 hours study, rest (even sleep) for two hours and then do three hours revision, rather than to try and do an "all-nighter" of 8 hours study and revision in one sitting. This will allow the memories to consolidate and be available more fully in other contexts such as the exam room. Energised by the reassuring explanation of how this works neurologically, I'm pretty sure you are much more likely to apply this fact next time you need to study, rather than being seduced by the "common-sense" notion that if you just study a little more during that 2 hour rest time you will pack more information in.


You may of course say that so far this neuroscience is just confirming what you already know from clinical experience. Maybe. I maintain that there is no longer much point in going on fabricating NLP models without reference to neuroscience though. At first, the results of chemistry and alchemy were only slightly different. But over time the rigorous checking for the material reality underneath the chemistry experiments resulted in huge changes. Alchemy stayed the same; indeed it treasured the ancientness of its hypotheses. The great thing about science is that it creates hypotheses which can be proved wrong. Much of what I say about brain function today will seem naive in 20 years. On the other hand, NLP terminology such as "parts" and "neurological levels" will continue to have philosophical value, and if anything the hypotheses and concepts will be elaborated to manage new data, rather than dispensed with. The ancient Chinese five elements theory does provide adequate guidelines for clinical success with acupuncture, and will continue to guide excellent practitioners. None-the-less, in the long term, I believe that science, with its ability to question even our most basic formulae, tends to generate a lot better results. In a treatise called "On the difference between spirit and soul", Qusta ibn Luqa (864-923, in Baghdad in Wilcox, 1985) wrote that people who want to retrieve memories look upwards and people who want to think look down. This, he explained, is because there is a little animal in our head. When it tilts up, it sees images from our memories and when it turns down it focuses inwardly and talks to itself. For some purposes, this is just as good an explanation as saying that the eye movement triggers neural pathways that open up functioning in different brain areas, but the neurological explanation is more in tune with the times, and gives us better options to test it in a lab. I know which metaphor I'm going to use in my trainings -- neuroscience makes more sense.

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Trainer and Registered Nurse. His book RESOLVE: A New Model of Therapy describes the use of NLP in therapy. He can be reached at