Friday, November 16, 2012

Tao of Psychology Part 2: NLP

 11/18/2012: Added pdf link.

When I first read about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) I was pretty skeptical. However, Milton Erickson had spoken well of its founders and I figured if he had approved of it then it was at least worth looking into. In retrospect my opinion is a bit mixed, but overall I think NLP contributes a good deal both towards understanding Erickson's work better, and to psychology in general.

Early Development

In the 1970s, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, under the supervision of Gregory Bateson, began working on a project to study various successful therapists and try to identify the important aspects of their technique. Their first subject was Fritz Perls, from which they derived the "meta model". Later they studied Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. From this work, they developed what would later be known as NLP.

Their work was heavily influenced by both Gregory Bateson and Noam Chomsky, with an emphasis on systems modeling and a strong recognition of the fact that thoughts and understanding are merely information.

They developed several fundamental principles at this time which became the foundation of future work, some of the most important include:
-The map is not the territory.
-The mind and body are part of a single inseparable system.
-Choice (or more choice) is better than not having choices.
-The meaning of your communication is what the listener hears (assuming honesty). In other words, it is the responsibility of the communicator to ensure that they are understood in the way that they intend.
-If what you're doing isn't working, do something else. (alternately, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result)

Further Work

Soon the NLP movement gained momentum, and many other people joined Richard and John in doing further research and developing the model. These included Robert Dilts, Judith DeLozier, Steve and Connirae Andreas and others. During this time many new ideas were incorporated into NLP, which expanded a great deal and became a basic model of the mechanics of thought.

Representational Modalities

One thing that they noted was that we think through our senses. Namely Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Olfactory and Gustatory. These they called "modalities". Verbal is sometimes included as "Auditory: digital", and emotions are also sometimes considered as a meta category.

They noted that people generally have a most-used modality, which is reflected in how a person speaks and refers to things. The most obvious cases would be a person saying "I see", versus "I hear you" or "I feel that", however it can also be much more subtle than that.

We use "representation" in order to reason and make sense of things. For example, considering the following sentence(s):

Yesterday I was eating some fresh, juicy strawberries in my garden when a pink elephant with blue polka dots chased a yellow cat through my flower bed. It was a stomping, shrieking racket, and bits of flowers were left scattered all over.
In order to make sense of that statement, you have to imagine eating strawberries, seeing a pink elephant, bits of scattered flowers and so on.



Along with the modalities, they also noticed that each could have a number of modifiers associated with it. It turns out these modifiers, which they called 'sub-modalities', shared commonalities between the modalities. These include location, movement, intensity, shape, number, symmetry and texture. Originally it was thought that the 'sub-modalities' were like building blocks from which experiences were built, and from which new experiences could be built. This changed later, however, which I'll discuss further on.


The process of association is ubiquitous both in normal thought and in mental illness. Mental states can be linked to certain external cues, telling us when to feel happy, sad, angry and so on, and they can also be linked to other mental states, for example associating "psychology" with "Milton Erickson, NLP, hpynosis" and so on. They called the process of forming associations "anchoring". An anchor can literally be anything you can think about - a tone of voice, a facial expression, a touch, the sight of an object, person, place or situation, and so on.

They found that anchors can be manipulated in all kinds of interesting ways. One way, which they called "sliding anchors" was used often by Erickson. For example, he might start counting from 1 to 20 as a person went into a trance, and as his counting became associated with their state, he could then use the numbers to control the person's state. By saying "one" he could wake them up, for instance, or by saying "twenty" take them into a deep trance. Saying "twenty-one" would then lead to an even deeper trance, and skipping numbers could change their state more rapidly than counting one at a time.

Another thing that can be done with anchors is what they call "collapsing anchors", which is also equivalent to "parts integration". In this case, a person might be torn between two seemingly conflicting states or choices. By anchoring each of the conflicting states, then triggering both anchors either at the same time or in rapid succession, they found the states integrated and the conflict would resolve itself. Collapsing anchors can be used in other interesting ways, which I'll touch on later.


Dissociation is very much the opposite of anchoring. With dissociation, two things are made separate and exclusive. This might include conflicting plans or beliefs, but it's also associated with a number of unusual phenomena related to trance. This includes amnesia, negative hallucination (not seeing something that is there, also "selective hearing"), and ideomotor activity.



In putting together the basic phenomena, they found that when people solve everyday problems, as well as when they experience mental distress, they use patterns of the different phenomena in a certain order in order to invoke certain states, helpful or problematic alike. They found that by making small changes to a problem strategy, they could help the person to break out of that pattern. Conversely, they found that by studying the strategy used by experts, they could learn to reproduce (some of) the capabilities of those experts, and teach them to others. Robert Dilts's magnum opus, "Strategies of Genius" details the strategies of many of history's geniuses, which he inferred by studying their writings. I highly recommend giving it a read.


One of the techniques they derived from Milton Erickson they called "reframing". Very often a person's problem arises not from the situations they face, but rather from the meaning they give to those situations. By changing the implied meaning of an experience, they found that many problems lost the characteristics of being problems. "Lemons to lemonade", if you will.

Pacing and Leading

Both for hypnotic induction and successful therapy, it is necessary for the therapist to form a relationship of trust and understanding with the client. The longer this takes, the longer therapy takes. Milton Erickson, however, could establish such a relationship often in the first session. His techniques for doing this became known as "pacing and leading". This is achieved by mirroring the client's preferred modality, their gestures (to some extent), by using or following their figured of speech, by matching their breathing, or simply by maintaining an engaging conversation. By demonstrating to the client that you understand their model of the world, you can then proceed to introduce changes to that model, to break up their rigid conscious pattern or to induce a trance.



Another important aspect of Milton Erickson's technique, and possibly the most important aspect, was his ability to observe people very closely and to pick up on minute changes in their inner state. He would watch things like pupil dilation, muscle tension and relaxation, changes in skin color, changes in pulse or breathing, subvocalizations and other subtle things which he could only be implicitly aware of. It was only by keen observation that he was able to note changes in his clients, and respond appropriately.



One of the things which NLP is most well known for is 'patterns'. Basically, 'patterns' are therapeutic techniques which, at least in theory, can be used to solve various problems given an appropriate choice of pattern. The most well known of these is the "10 minute phobia cure". Unfortunately for NLP, most of the 'patterns' turned out to be less useful than the distinctions listed above, and while there was much talk about figuring out a framework to determine how to know when to use a particular pattern, nothing ever materialized to fill this void in spite of many attempts.

"NLP 2.0"

In spite of the many interesting and useful distinctions that were made in NLP regarding the mechanics of thought and learning, there continued to be a large gap between the theory and the practice. NLP lacked any overarching theoretical framework which could act as a guide for therapy, and the patterns tended to be overly rigid and difficult to apply appropriately. Disagreements, both legal and theoretical, began breaking out in the NLP community. Eventually they all agreed to disagree, which led to the formation of a diversity of proposals for "NLP 2.0", in various attempts to consolidate and reconcile the previous work and to add new discoveries to the heap. No such "unified theory" has yet been accepted by the community in general, although many of the proposed theories have offered new insights and techniques.

Design Human Engineering & Neuro Hypnotic Repatterning

After the split, Richard Bandler formed his own school, focusing on two sets of tehniques called "Design Human Engineering" and "Neuro Hypnotic Repatterning". His school currently operates, and focuses on using hypnosis and building new states from scratch using sub-modalities. I won't say much more about it, but people have taken the course comment that the only thing they really get out of it is that they develop an "inner place for doing inner work".

"The New Code"

John Grinder wrote two major books after the split, "Turtles All the Way Down" and "Whispering in the Wind" which he wrote with Judith DeLozier. "Turtles" is a guide to managing inner states for accomplishing various tasks, and came off as fairly dark and very dissociative. "Whispering in the Wind" was supposedly the magnum opus for Grinder's "New Code of NLP", but was mostly apologetic and didn't offer much insight as to how NLP could be improved.

Grinder currently teaches in the UK, where NLP is accepted as a mainstream school of psychology. Sadly, I can't say much good about his practice or his instructors. You can see one of his instructors, Michael Carroll, failing to heed one of the most basic tenants of NLP (if what you're doing isn't working, do something else) not once, but twice in the official videos at NLP Academy (one two). One of his other instructors, Stephen Gilligan, I can only describe as "that creepy woo-woo guy". While I have nothing personal against any of them, I think it's extremely important for a therapist, let alone someone teaching therapists, that they should be at least basically mentally healthy themselves. For teaching in general, being able to demonstrate what you're teaching is equally important, but I haven't seen them live up to either count, and that's bad news for their many students, and for the legitimacy of NLP in general.

John did make an interesting observation that the conscious and unconscious can't be 'integrated' like other states can, but can learn to interact and work together effectively. I had the opportunity to test this with a member of the ASCH. In a session after he had induced a deep trance, I had him collapse the anchors he had set for the waking state and trance state. It felt like he pulled an inner guitar string tight, then another string, and wrapped it around the first before letting them snap back into position. That and a flash of the sort of blurry darkness that characterizes deep trance, and then after a minute of inner stirring I settled in a light trance, in which consciousness can affect communication with the unconscious. I believe it supports John's hypothesis.

The Meta-States Model & Neuro-Semantics

Two relatively new names on the NLP scene, L Michael Hall and Bob Bodenhamer are preachers turned NLP instructors who came up with their own model to explain some contradictory things they observed in relation to the original. They noted that what had been called "sub-modalities" actually had "metaphorical" significance, and were not the atomic building blocks that Richard Bandler had assumed them to be. They found that the same also applied to the Patterns, implying that as long as the metaphorical-emotional content was maintained, it should be possible to creatively use the patterns creatively, even to the point of changing them to be unrecognizable from the originals.

While this insight is indeed important, the meta-states model is extremely circular to the point of headache without actually explaining much of anything new. They failed - I thought - to integrate their findings in any meaningful way, or to provide anything that might unify the still-disjoint theories of NLP.

Hall's techniques for dealing with problem states, which he dubs "Dragon Slaying", also rely heavily on the meta-model. I haven't really mentioned much about it, but suffice it to say that it's extremely irritating and passively insults your intelligence. It's also a very inefficient and time consuming way to deal with psychological problems, if it works at all.

They come to the conclusion that the techniques of NLP are only suitable for simple problems like nail biting or a simple phobia, but ineffective for more complex conditions like general anxiety or complex trauma. I agree, but I can't say they managed to improve anything in that area.

A Recursive Approach

In the now-defunct NLP Anchor Point magazine, I ran across a series of articles that was based around Douglas Hofstadter's book "Godel, Escher, Bach" which sounded very interesting. So, I decided to pick up a copy of GEB and see what that was all about. I can say that it was an excellent and entertaining introduction to number theory, and touches on some fascinating things related to incompleteness and uncertainty, but I cannot say that I found it useful for psychology. Hofstadter's sequel, "I am a strange loop", was more specifically focused on psychology but I found it to focus on the more shallow and meaningless aspects of being human - things like "what kind of music do you like?" or "what's your favorite food?". IAASL also wasn't written in the highly artistic style which made GEB such a great book. Overall, at least for psychology, I found it to be a dead end.

Humanity in Therapy

Later I ran across a few more articles in anchor point which piqued my curiosity. A guy by the name of Richard Bolstad had written several articles with similar themes, one calling for bringing the human element back into therapy, one on Ghandi, and one on near-death experiences (which you can read for free). By that point I had already grown sick of the mechanistic way in which NLP practitioners tend to operate, and moreso with their money-centric (MY money centric) attitudes, and the direction Dr. Bolstad was taking struck a deep chord with me. Something told me he had the right idea, and so I decided to delve deeper into the subject of spirituality and NDEs to see if I couldn't dig up any clues that could put things into perspective, and perhaps reveal the "missing link" needed to unify the NLP framework.

For now that's all I will say, but I'll be discussing the results of my research much more over the next few articles.

"The User's Manual for the Brain: The Complete Manual for Neuro-Linguistic Programming Practitioner Certification" by L Michael Hall & Bob Bodenhamer (scribd)

1 comment:

  1. I think you should pay more attention to Stephen Gilligan´s work.....he split with NLP way before the split and was always more atunned to Milton Erikson´s work, whom he studied with and loved. His Generative Trance is really effective as therapy!