Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Research on Neuro Linguistic Programming

by Richard Bolstad.


Research on NLP is in its infancy. The term NLP was first coined in 1976, so that the entire field is currently only 30 years old, and some of the most significant techniques were developed within the last decade. Most NLP Practitioners trust the empirical evidence that what they are doing works, but the following article collects some of the research data currently available to support their experience. Some NLP techniques are simply "modelled" on techniques used and researched in other fields (Ericksonian Hypnosis and Classical Conditioning being the two main examples) and in these fields NLP is an accelerated methodology for learning these techniques, rather than the originator of them. In other cases research from the field of Psychology supports the theoretical basis of NLP techniques which in themselves have not been fully researched yet (a key example being the phenomenon called "Submodalities" in NLP). Finally some specific research on NLP's own developed techniques does exist.

The NLP Model Of Sensory System Use And The NLP Spelling Strategy

One of the most important claims made by NLP is that people think in specific sensory languages, and these types of thought can be accessed by changing the direction the subject's eyes look to. The following experiment supports this notion, and it's application to memorising the spelling of words.

F. Loiselle at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada (1985) selected 44 average spellers, as determined by their pretest on memorising nonsense words. Instructions in the experiment, where the 44 were required to memorise another set of nonsense words, were given on a computer screen. The 44 were divided into four subgroups for the experiment.

The results on testing immediately after were that Group One (who did acually look up left more than the others, but took the same amount of time) increased their success in spelling by 25%, Group Two worsened their spelling by 15%, Group Three increased their success by 10%, and Group Four scored the same as previously. This strongly suggests that looking up left (Visual Recall in NLP terms) enhances spelling, and is twice as effective as simply teaching students to picture the words. Furthermore, looking down right (Kinesthetic in NLP terms) damages the ability to visualise the words.Interestingly, in a final test some time later (testing retention), the scores of Group One remained constant, while the scores of the control group, Group Four, plummeted a further 15%, a drop which was consistent with standard learning studies. The resultant difference in memory of the words for these two groups was 61%.

Thomas Malloy at the University of Utah Department of Psychology completed a study with three groups of spellers, again pretested to find average spellers. One group were taught the NLP spelling strategy of looking up and to the left, one group were taught a strategy of sounding out by phonetics and auditory rules, and one were given no new information. In this study the tests involved actual words. Again, the visual recall spellers improved 25%, and had near 100% retention one week later. The group taught the auditory strategies improved 15% but this score dropped 5% in the following week. The control group showed no improvement.

These studies support the NLP Spelling Strategy specifically, and the NLP notion of Eye Accessing Cues, Sensory system use, and Strategies in general.They are reported in:

The NLP Model of Sensory Representational System Use

The claim that which sensory system you talk in makes a difference to your results with specific clients was tested by Michael Yapko. He had 30 graduate students in counselling, and had them listen to three separate taped trance inductions. Each induction used language from one of the main sensory systems (visual, auditory and kinesthetic). Subjects were assessed before to identify their preference for words from these sensory systems. After each induction, their depth of trance was measured by electromyograph and by asking them how relaxed they felt. On both measures, subjects achieved greater relaxation when their preferred sensory system was used.

Mirroring and Rapport

In 1995 a remarkable type of neuron was discovered by researchers working at the University of Palma in Italy (Rizzolatti et alia, 1996; Rizzolatti and Arbib, 1998). The cells, now called "mirror neurons", are found in the pre-motor cortex of monkeys and apes as well as humans. In humans they form part of the specific area called Broca's area, which is also involved in the creation of speech. Although the cells are related to motor activity (ie they are part of the system by which we make kinaesthetic responses such as moving an arm), they seem to be activated by visual input. When a monkey observes another monkey (or even a human) making a body movement, the mirror neurons light up. As they do, the monkey appears to involuntarily copy the same movement it has observed visually. Often this involuntary movement is inhibited by the brain (otherwise the poor monkey would be constantly copying every other monkey), but the resulting mimickery is clearly the source of the saying "monkey see, monkey do".

In human subjects, when this area of the brain is exposed to the magnetic field of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), thus reducing conscious control, then merely showing a movie of a person picking up an object will cause the subject to involuntarily copy the exact action with their hand (Fadiga et alia, 1995). This ability to copy a fellow creature's actions as they do them has obviously been very important in the development of primate social intelligence. It enables us to identify with the person we are observing. When this area of the brain is damaged in a stroke, copying another's actions becomes almost impossible. The development of speech has clearly been a result of this copying skill. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that autism and Aspergers syndrome are related to unusual activity of the mirror neurons. This unusual activity results in a difficulty the autistic person has understanding the inner world of others, as well as a tendency to echo speech parrot-fashion and to randomly copy others' movements.

Mirror neurons respond to the facial expressions associated with emotions as well, so that they enable the person to directly experience the emotions of those they observe. William Condon has meticulously studied videotapes of conversations, confirming these patterns. He found that in a successful conversation, movements such as a smile or a head nod are involuntarily matched by the other person within 1/15 of a second. Within minutes of beginning the conversation, the volume, pitch and speech rate (number of sounds per minute) of the peoples voices match each other. This is correlated with a synchronising of the type and rate of breathing. Even general body posture is adjusted over the conversation so that the people appear to match or mirror each other (Condon 1982, p 53-76). As a person adjusts their facial expression and other nonverbal behaviour to match others' they actually use the same pattern of brain activation that the other person is using. When their mirror neurons respond and they copy the person's actions, they thus feel what that person is feeling. This results in what researchers call "emotional contagion" - what NLP calls rapport (Hatfield et alia, 1994).

The NLP Model Of Association-Dissociation And The NLP Phobia/Trauma Process

Several small scale studies support the success of the NLP Phobia cure, which is based on the NLP model of Dissociation. Here are a collection. In this case the treatment, which takes about 10 minutes, is the standard one taught on NLP Practitioner courses.

Dr David Muss did a pilot study on this method, with 70 members of the British West Midlands Police Force, all of whom had witnessed major disasters such as the Lockerbie air crash. Of these 19 qualified as having PTSD. The time between trauma and treatment varied from six weeks to ten years. All participants reported that after an average of three sessions they were completely free of intrusive memories and other PTSD symptoms. For most, one session was enough to solve the problem. Followup ranged from 3 months to 2 years, and all gains were sustained over that time (Muss, 1991). This kind of success is almost unprecedented in the field of psychotherapy. Even more important, it can be achieved by anyone with a basic understanding of NLP, and does not depend on the magical talents of a rare "expert".

The Use Of Submodalities

Many NLP techniques are based on the changing of specific qualities (called submodalities) of the internal pictures, sounds and body responses a subject uses. Research on these was occuring before NLP developed, and is summarised in the back of the book

Studies show, for example, that the submodalities in which a client views a placebo (how colourful the pill packaging is, say) will affect the result. Other studies show that changes in the submodalities in one sensory system will automatically result in changes in the other sensory systems and in emotional changes (so if you change the way your internal picture looks, you'll feel different). As an example, office workers in a room repainted blue will complain of the cold, even though the thermostat is constant, but will stop complaining if it is repainted yellow. These responses are physiological, so that sounds of about 80 decibels produce a 37% decrease in stomach contractions (similar to the result of "fear", and likely to be percieved as such, as the writers of scores for thriller movies know). These examples come from:

The swish is a submodality technique with a wide range of applications. It has been used successfully to resolve compulsive behaviours such as nail biting (Wilhelm, 1991) or explosive violence (Masters et alia, 1991), as well as to deal with anxiety conditions (Andreas and Andreas, 1992).


In orthodox psychological literature, the NLP technique of Anchoring is known as Classical Conditioning, as developed 100 years ago by Ivan Pavlov (who induced dogs to salivate by ringing a bell just before feeding them, and then ringing the bell alone). In one of the earliest studies of classical conditioning, an eleven month old boy (Albert) was introduced to a white rat. Initially, Albert liked the rat and wanted to play with it. However, each time he reached for it, the experimenter nmade a loud noise behind him, frightening him. After five such noises, Albert had anchored fear to the rat, and panicked whenever he saw it. Having induced this phobia by anchoring, the experimenters were then able to remove it similarly (though this is clearly an ethically dubious study both for Albert and the rat!). Research from p 40 in :

In a controlled research study published in Germany (Reckert, 1994), Horst Reckert describes how in one session he was able to remove students' test anxiety using this simple technique, described below. In another study, John Craldell discusses the use of anchoring to access a "self-caring-state" useful for adult children of alcoholics (Craldell, 1989), and in a third study, Mary Thalgott discusses the use of anchors to support children with learning disabilities (Thalgott, 1986).

Of the hundreds of examples of anchoring principles applied in an innovative way, without the name "Anchoring", one stands out for me. It is Ellen Langer's study of two groups of elderly men (aged 75-80 years), at Harvard University. For 5 days, these two comparable groups of men lived in a closely supervised retreat centre out in the country. One group was engaged in a series of tasks encouraging them to think about the past (to write an autobiography, to discuss the past etc). The other group was engaged in a series of tasks which actually anchored them back into a past time (1959). They wrote an autobiography only up to 1959, describing that time as "now", watched 1959 movies, had 1959 music playing on the "radios", and lived with only the artifacts available in 1951. Before and after the 5 days, both groups were studied on a number of criteria associated with aging. While the first group stayed constant or actually deteriorated on these criteria, the second group dramatically improved on physical health measures such as joint flexibility, vision, and muscle breadth, as well as on IQ tests. They were anchored back to being 50 years old, by the sights and sounds of 1959.

The NLP Allergy Process, described below, is an example of a researched NLP technique using this anchoring principle.

The NLP Allergy Process

Here a research base exists outside of NLP. Several studies suggest that allergic responses can be generated (and thus removed) by classical conditioning (which in NLP is called Anchoring). In these studies, an allergy inducing chemical is given to mice, for example, at the same time as a camphor smell is released. In following sessions, the smell of camphor will induce an allergic response. See as an example:

Small studies on the NLP technique itself are also supportive. Dr Judith Swack studied ten people who had a variety of allergies (cats, dust, flowers, cigarette smoke etc). Seven of the ten responded to the ten minute allergy process by become completely response-free. Over two years, the results reduced, as three of the seven regained some allergic response. Interestingly, of the three who initially got no success with the allergy process, two became allergy free once Swack used other NLP techniques (Time Line Therapy(, the Compulsion Blowout and the Trauma Process) with them. The overall success of NLP in treating allergies may be close to 100%, but the success of the 10 minute process itself, with no other interventions, is initially 70% and on long term followup is 40%.

Language Pattern Use

Dr Thomas Macroy at Utah State University did a detailed study of 31 families, members of which were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with the family. Next, a family session was held for each family and recorded on audiotape. The audiotapes were analysed for the occurrence of 150 specific metamodel patterns. In those families where people were less satisfied, substantially more metamodel patterns were being used, especially deletions and unspecified nouns. This study supports the notion that challenging metamodel patterns is an important way to enhance the ability to achieve satisfaction socially (Macroy, 1978).

Donald Moine at the University of Oregon studied 45 minute long audiocassette recordings of insurance salespeople. His sample included top producers from their companies, as well as "average" producers of sales. The highly successful salespeople used far more embedded suggestions, complex equivalents, mind reading, metaphors, pacing, and modal operators of possibility. This artfully vague and suggestive language was part of their skill in enabling others to change (Moines, 1981).

Dr Lewis Baxter (1994) showed that clients with obsessive compulsive disorder had raised activity in neural networks inside the caudate nucleus of the brain (demonstrated on PET scans of the brain). Drugs such as Prozac raise serotonin levels and the caudate nucleus activity is thus reduced. Baxter found that when clients repeated a simple reframe to themselves, the PET scan showed the same raising of serotonin levels and the same lowering of activity in the caudate nucleus.

Hypnosis And Communication With The Unconscious Mind

The research on the results of Hypnosis in general, and Ericksonian Hypnosis in particular amounts to many volumes. NLP Practitioners have contributed to that research, as for example in the study done by Lynn Timpany (of Transformations NLP Consultants Ltd, New Zealand) into the use of a one session hypnosis treatment for morning sickness and anxiety in 12 women who were pregnant. Of those 12 women, two had sleeping problems which disappeared as a result of the session, five of the eight who were vomiting noticed a significant improvement, and two went from being nauseous virtually 100% of the time to feeling ill less than 20% of the time.

The literature about hypnosis documents some remarkable successes with it's use in a variety of fields. As a reference, see:

Studies show that hypnosis can over-ride what would have been considered "incurable congenital conditions". For example, the British Medical Journal in 1952 published a study of a 16 year old boy with congenital ichthyosis erythroderma, whose skin was covered in a horny layer which weeped fluid at the joints. In a week following hypnosis, small areas of the body were clear, and the results spread to the rest of the body over the second week. (above text, p376). In one of the clearest demonstrations of the ability to communicate with a person's (literally) unconscious mind, D. Cheek induced 3000 fully anaesthetised patients to produce hand movements as signals for "yes" and "no", obviously without their conscious knowledge.

Time Line Therapy (And Treatment Of Medical Conditions Such As Asthma)

A one year research study (May 1993-May 1994) into the treatment of asthmatics, using NLP, was done in Denmark. Results have already been presented at a number of European conferences, including the Danish Society of Allergology Conference (August 1994), and the European Respiratory Society Conference (Nice, France, October 1994). The study was run by General Practitioner Jorgen Lund and NLP Master Practitioner Hanne Lund, from Herning, Denmark. Patients were selected from 8 general practices. 30 were included in the NLP Intervention group, and 16 in the control group. All received basic medical care including being supplied with medication. Most had never heard of NLP before, and many were completely unbelieving in it, or terrified of it. Their motivation to do NLP was generally low. The intervention group had an initial day introduction to NLP and Time Line Therapy, and then 3-36 hours (average 13) of NLP intervention. The NLP focus was not mainly on the asthma; it was on how the people lived their daily lives. The interventions used were:

The results affected both the peoples general lives, and their asthma. Patients tended to describe their change subjectively as enabling them to be "more open", get "colossal strength and self confidence" "a new life" etc. The lung capacity of adult asthmatics tends to decrease by 50ml a year average. This occurred in the control group. Meanwhile the NLP group increased their lung capacity by an average of 200ml (like reversing four years of damage in a year!). Daily variations in peak flow (an indicator of unstable lung function) began at 30%-40%. In the control group they reduced to 25% but in the NLP group they fell to below 10% . Sleep disorders in the control group began at 70% and dropped to 30%. In the NLP group they began at 50% and dropped to ZERO. Use of asthma inhalers and acute medication in the NLP group fell to near ZERO. Hanne Lund points out that the implications of this project reach far beyond asthma management. She says "We consider the principles of this integrated work valuable in treatment of patients with any disease, and the next step will be to train medical staff in this model." Hanne Lund can be reached at: NLP Creative Kommunikationa, Bredgade 11, DK 7400 Herning, Denmark

Use Of NLP In Psychotherapy

A study of NLP use in Psychotherapy was organised by Martina Genser-Medlitsch and Peter Sch(?)tz in Vienna, Austria in 1996. The test sample of 55 therapy clients and the control group of 60 clients on a waiting list were matched by pattern of symptoms, age, family circumstances, education level, therapy experience etc. The test group were seen by members of a group of 37 NLP Master Practitioners (22 men and 15 women) who used a full range of NLP techniques (reframing, setting outcomes, parts work, metamodel, metaphor, trance, time line work, anchoring, belief changes, submodality shifts, strategies, and trauma-phobia process). Clients were assessed with a number of questionnaires before therapy, after therapy, and at 6 month followup. The assessments checked ocurrence of individual discomforts, clinical psychological symptoms, coping strategies used for stress management, locus of control (whether the people felt in control of their lives), and subjective evaluation of the therapy by the client and the therapist. Diagnoses (ICD9) ranged from schizo-affective and other psychotic disorders, through alcohol dependence, endogenous depressions, psychosomatic disorders, and other issues to post traumatic stress disorders. These disorders were more severe initially in the test group than in the control group on all scales, and their use of psychiatric drugs was higher. On average, treatments lasted 12 sessions (1-48) over a period averaging 20 weeks.

After treatment 1.9% of clients who had had NLP therapy felt no different, 38,9% felt better and 59.3% felt considerably better. None of those treated felt worse. In the control group meanwhile, 47.5% felt no different, 29.5% felt better and 6.6% felt considerably better. 9.8% of the controls felt worse and 4.9% felt considerably worse. At 6 month followup, 52% of clients who had had therapy felt considerably better, 28% felt better, 12% felt there was no change, and 8% felt worse. Meanwhile, the therapists rated 49% of their treatments as having met objectives well, 47% as having somewhat met objectives, and 4% as of little or no success.

After therapy, the clients who received NLP scored higher in their perception of themselves as in control of their lives (with a difference at 10% significance level), reduced their use of drugs, used more successful coping methods to respond to stressful situations, and reduced symptoms such as anxiety, aggression, paranoid thinking, social insecurity, compulsive behaviours, and depression. the research showed that some positive changes also ocurred in the control group and could not be accounted for by the therapy, including some of the reduction in psychosomatic symptoms, social isolation and some paranoid thinking. Altogether, positive changes in 25 of 33 symptom areas (76%) occurred as a result of the therapy, positive changes in 3 areas occurred in both groups, and no significant changes occured in 5 areas.

Amongst the group who received therapy, there were some interesting differences. On 63.15% of the symptom scales, changes were more pronounced in those under 36 years than those over 35 years old. On 40% of the symptom dimensions, men improved more than women (especially in the areas of feeling more in control of life, and reducing paranoid thoughts, aggression, depression and anxiety). Clients receiving longer durations of therapy (11-48 sessions, as compared to 1-10 sessions) had more gains (especially in relief from compulsive and psychotic behaviours) at the end of therapy, but also accounted for more of the loss of success at the 6 month followup.

Use of NLP in Business Coaching

A study of NLP use in business coaching was done by Dr Trygve Roos in 2002. He followed up business clients 6-24 months after (usually single session) coaching and found that the gains they had made in work performance, personal behaviour and perceived life quality were dramatic and sustained over that time. Dr Roos points out that management research consistently emphasises the interrelatedness of these three types of outcomes. Many business clients, he found, chose to work on what would be seen as personal issues, which none-the-less had a profound effect on their business achievement. He gives examples (Roos, 2002, p 4) of a client with a phobia of flying which had altered all his career choices, and a client with a phobia of pigeons who had structured all his business meetings to avoid the need to walk past public parks. As an example of the efficiency of his work with specific issues, he worked with 25 clients who wanted to give up smoking cigarettes (Roos, 2002, p 91). 19 ceased smoking after a single 45 minute session, and another one after two sessions. At follow-up 24 months later, only 5 of the original 25 had started smoking again, a success rate of 75%, over twice the usual best results of longer aversion and other therapies for smoking.


None of the above studies are large enough to constitute scientific "proof" (with the possible exception of D. Cheek's 3000 unconscious patients giving hand signals). What they do is give us reason to research further, and grounds for using NLP in an experimental way. The situation remains only a little improved from the way Eric Einspruch and Bruce Foreman saw it in their 1985 review of research on NLP; "Many skilled NLP Practitioners have a wealth of clinical data indicating that this model is highly effective. Clearly these Practitioners would provide a service to the field by presenting their data in the literature so they may be critically evaluated."

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: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz