Neuro Linguistic Programming

NLP evolved during the 1970s from research into the nature of subjective experience within the field of linguistics.   The origional belief was that the discoveries made would transform education, management practices including psycho-therapy.   But NLP divided into factions and research left in-complete - why?

What is NLP?

The basic principles of  NLP  state that the human sensory system must be in correct working order (externally and internally) for an individual to function adequately.

  • V   visual - seeing
  • A   auditory - hearing
  • K   kinaesthetic - feeling
  • O   olfactory - smell
  • G   gustatory - taste

Also, language should be specific when spoken without un-intentionally Generalising, Deleting or Distorting information for an individual or healthy society to function co-operatively.   This may appear obvious but these simple objectives are not easily achieved.   Traditional psychology based on Freudian and Jungian analysis, plus traditional education and management practices often require a great deal of time to achieve positive results.   NLP practices claim to provide simple and effective methods to achieve positive outcomes in a shorter period of time.

NLP origins

NLP first appeared 1976 in publications by John Grinder and Richard Bandler  "The Structure of Magic 1 and 2",   followed by  "Frogs into Princes".   It is not clear where the term NLP originated but it has been stated that Gregory Bateson used it as a generic term.   After many legal disputes, intellectual ownership of the NLP term is still unclear.   There remains no singular authoritative body to represent it.   It is argued that intellectuals from the 1930s and 1940s inspired the research behind NLP.
Aldous Huxley   (1894 - 1963)
Milton H Erickson   (1901 - 1980)
Gregory Bateson   (1904 - 1980)
Fritz Perls   (1893 - 1970)
These intellectuals were previously influenced by the Existentialist movements of Europe before the Second World War, including the teachings of J Krishnamurti.   These source philosophies included Buddhist ideals, which also had and have favour among many scientists.   These ideals state that the problems of the individual could be resolved by understanding that the 'Self' is an illusion, and if this understanding was common throughout humanity, the world could be at peace.   The 'Self' is defined by the original NLP material as a Meta Model (a model of a model).

NLP presuppositions

Similar to the precepts of Buddhism (not harming living creatures etc) NLP has a set of foundational presuppositions.   These presuppositions are guide-lines and were the ideals proposed by earlier progressive professionals of psychiatry and psychology who were opposed to the in-humane institutionalised practices of incarceration, electric shock therapy and lobotomy etc, for those deemed mentally disabled or insane.

  1. The meaning of any communication is the response.
  2. There is no failure in communication, only response (desired or un-desired).
  3. If the desired response is not achieved, do something different (be flexible).
  4. The map is not the territory (the word is not the thing it describes).
  5. Everyone lives within their unique model of the world.
  6. Everyone makes the best choices available (within their circumstance).
  7. Behind every behaviour is a positive intention (often difficult to see).
  8. Every behaviour is useful in some context.
  9. Everyone has the resources they need to make any desired change (with useful education)
  10. Everyone can learn what others can do (with variations of expertise).

NLP training consists of three primary categories, which are further divided into sub-categories.

  • Sensory equity and language predicates (representational systems. V. A. K.)
  • Language modelling (Deletion Distortion Generalisation)
  • Application of psycho-therapeutic techniques.

But how is NLP different in approach from traditional clinical psychology and how are the claims by NLP substantiated?

Sequencing order

Our sensory system is sequenced in various orders to achieve specific tasks efficiently.   Driving a vehicle requires the visual sense to lead physical action for steering braking etc.   V → K.   The other senses, auditory (A) smell (O) taste (G) are less or not needed.   Driving a vehicle by physically acting first and looking last   K → V   results in accidents.   Sensory sequencing applies to every task we do.     Cooking a meal requires the smell O and taste G senses to be used.   Once explained this appears obvious.

The right pic is an NLP tool for showing eye movement patterns associated with internal thinking of sensory positions.   C and R show where the eyes un-consciously move to represent created or remembered visual and auditory thoughts.   Emotional depression may be the result of thinking in a particular order.   Imagine seeing something personally un-pleasant associated with internal negative dialogue resulting in depressive feelings   Vr → Ai → Ki.     i represents internal experience whereas  e   if used represents external experience.

Traditional psychology and medicine see depression as a condition that can be treated independently from its cause either by counselling to reinforce P.M.A. (positive mental attitude) or with prescription drugs, which maybe argued as being appropriate to correct chemical imbalance.

However, the NPL approach can cross check if depression, phobias, obsessions are the result of the order in which repetitive particular thoughts associated with images and feelings (conscious or un-conscious) give rise to unwanted experiences.

The NLP procedure is to seek out the specific sequencing order of thoughts and images that give rise to psychological problems and modify the sequencing order in such a way that problems no longer occur.   This is similar to driving a vehicle, by acting first and looking last, causing accidents, then changing the order around, looking first then acting.   This simple process can be done without the need to reveal or repeat the content (related to the un-wanted outcome or experience).   This procedure is described as a Meta process.

Many who practise traditional counselling try to change or modify the content of a client's problem without checking if the core of a client's problem maybe the internal sensory order or sequence in which the content is processed, and not the content itself.   Trying to change the content of a client's problem is similar to trying to change the past (which is impossible), whereas changing the sequencing order in which the content is conveyed is dealing with the problem in the present.   It has been argued that traditional psychology could be criticised for not having previously payed attention to the order of sensory sequencing in which content is conveyed.

NLP practices also extend into modelling and mimicking human behaviour, described as pacing and leading.   The application of pacing and leading in hypno-therapy enables those skilled in this craft to achieve a positive influence helping others in a short period of time.   However, the greatest positive influence of NLP has been in education.   From the simple task of learning how to spell by picturing a word first, to enabling complex subjects of engineering and science to be taught more effectively by paying attention to the order of sensory sequencing best suited to learning and applying the task.


Possibly the largest problem for those providing traditional psychological counselling is inadvertently becoming entangled within the content of the clients problem, described as Transference and Counter-transference.   Problems of transference can be time wasting and costly.   Also, whenever a client describes the detail of their problem they automatically re-experience it, un-intentionally re-anchoring the problem.   Traditional psychologists are sometimes required to attend debriefing sessions with their peers to insure problems of transference and accidental re-anchoring of clients issues are kept in check.   (Transference: Google links for further explanations)

NLP revolutionised psychological counselling by providing techniques that enable a clients issues to be dealt with without the content needing to be revealed.   This enables the client to be free of re-experiencing their issues and therefore concentrating on solutions and the future.   Consulting time is efficiently used and problems of Transference are greatly diminished.

Conflicts within NLP

A second branch of NLP referred to as a cult (NLP2) evolved during the mid 1980s from the growing mass desire for individual self fulfilment and craving for personal wealth, driven from a background of economic rationalism and corporate greed.   The film Wall Street about the character Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas stated line "Greed is good" typified the era.   NLP2 was ideally suited for exploitation especially when marketed to those with personal ambition in the corporate sector who do not have backgrounds in philosophy or psychology and therefore easily led into cult behaviour.

A cult can be described as an organisation of beliefs based on ranking or influence members have over each other.   NLP2 awards orders of Practitioner and Master Practitioner in return for loyalty, training and money.   The cult belief is that selected knowledge from the original NLP research can be used to manipulate and prosper in personal relationships, management practices, sport motivation and wealth creation.

This view of individualism that the 'self' is an actuality (not an illusion) that can be expanded and transformed into having God like qualities by simply changing ones internal thinking "releasing the power within"" to achieve anything one wishes, including fire-walking and levitating is at the core of division between the original NLP and the latter cult driven NLP.

The cult versions of NLP are marketed as staged evangelistic events with thousands of people led by a charismatic male cult figure / Tony Robbins   (typical within US culture).   The rise and monetary success of NLP2 cult movements caused many who were part of the original NLP research to publicly wash their hands of any further association with the NLP name.   Unfortunately, much of the original NLP research has been left incomplete.

NLP research difficulties

A primary principle in NLP states that our cognitive process of thinking is based on our sensory system, Seeing, Hearing and Feeling   This is revealed by the verbs stated in sentences, voice tonality, un-conscious eye movements, body language, breathing etc.

"I see what you are saying".   (Eye reflects up, voice tonality higher, breathing in upper torso)
"This sounds right to me".   (Eye reflects horizontally, voice tonality mid, breathing in middle of torso)
"I feel this is correct".   (Eye reflects down, voice tonality lower, breathing in lower torso)

NLP states that each person demonstrates a dominant preference in one of their sensory systems.   People with the same dominate sense converse readily without apparent difficulty.   Whereas, people with different dominant sensors may have difficulty conversing.

(Jack)  "Can you see what I am saying?"     (Jill)  "No I can't grasp it".
(Jack)  "Can you feel what I am trying to describe?     (Jill)  "Yes I am comfortable with the concept".

NLP states that we primarily respond to the sensory verbs in sentences that match our dominant sense and less to the content of the sentence.   NLP training teaches students to listen to and observe the person they are conversing with and switch to using their verbs, gestures and body language.   Magically all communication problems are solved, regardless of the content being discussed.   Demonstrations are made by substituting the content with word salad.

(Jill)   "It looks aardvarks what a henry see it clouds therefore maybe of could.
(Jack)   "I see what you are saying".

When these concepts were first described in NLP publications whey were seen as revelations.   How could something so simple not have been previously noticed?   The fields of communication, education, linguistics and psycho-therapy were turned upside down.   Those behind NLP believed they discovered how to solve all of humanities problems.   A Nobel prize within their grasp  -  but not so.

The idea that most people respond from a favoured or dominant sensory position (visual) and that the majority of humans think in mental pictures has more to do with US cultural conditioning from TV and marketing.   A large percentage of US culture had/has difficulty understanding Monty Python.   The simplistic concepts of sensory dominance are more difficult to demonstrate in British, European and Australian cultures that have been generally exposed to higher levels of linguistic sophistication.   The ingenious but simple NLP sensory specific linguistic models only opened a door pointing toward a greater complexity that needed to be investigated.   But investigation and research went no further.

Future research

A more complex model may be needed to describe what may be going on within the mind to explain the apparent illusion that the senses are sequentially processed or favoured.   The following description is analogous pointing to a direction for removing the division between the observer and the observed.   This is a paradox because this implies that the mind can observe itself.   Also the word mind is a metaphor and not a separate being.   However, if we can imagine this is possible, the following description is an artistic explanation of how ideas for future research may be approached.

A sentence, or any method of communication, can only be constructed in one of three ways.
1. Statement   2. Question   3. Command.
The mind's cognitive process can be represented as three processes similar to sentence structures.
1. Congruent   2. Meta   2. Polarity

Imagine the cognitive process existing as three parallel parts.

  1. The mind congruently accepts or processes information without comparing or polarising.
  2. The mind meta's information by comparing (meta-cognition) without excepting or polarising.
  3. The mind polarises information as its inverse or complement (stop - go) (up - down) etc.

The word Congruent is used to represent the mind's capacity to accept sensory information without analysing or rejecting.   The word Meta is used to represent the mind's capacity for analysis, calculation and comparison of information.   The word Polarity is used to describe the mind's response or reaction to sensory information.   Sensory information can be external or internally derived.

Example 1.   Driving a vehicle.
(a) Congruent part of my mind accepts (V) visual information without meta-ing or polarising it.
(b) Meta part of my mind is in (A) auditory internal dialogue, "accelerate before the lights turn red, or stop before the lights turn red".
(b) Polarity part of my mind delays (K) action of my foot untill a decision, or meta process is completed.

Example 2.   Listening to music.
(a) Congruent part of my mind accepts (A) auditory information without meta-ing or polarising to it.
(b) Meta part of my mind is processing comparative (K) feelings and emotions relaxing my body.
(b) Polarity part of my mind is de-focusing my (V) visual sense. My eyes may close and an internal visual experience of the music may appear.

Example 3.   Playing tennis.
(a) Congruent part of my mind enables immediate (K) physical action without meta or polarising to it.
(b) Meta part of my mind compares (V) visual information about the ball's trajectory.
(b) Polarity part of my mind delays (A) auditory dialogue until after the ball is played.

The Visual Auditory and Kinaesthetic senses are switched to the Congruent Meta and Polarity parts of the mind.   The senses are switched according to the task required.   It appears that no 2 senses can occupy the same cognitive part at one time.   This can also explain problems that arise when senses are inappropriately switched to cognitive sections of the mind that are not suited to the task.

The Congruent, Meta and Polarity parts of the mind appear to function in parallel.   However, it appears that we may only be aware of being conscious (in real time) in the minds meta state (Meta-cognition).   The Congruent and Polarity states of the mind appear to function without us needing to be consciously aware of these states (in real time).   The highly developed meta function (Meta-cognition) of the human mind maybe the only cognitive process that distinguishes us from the animals.


To the outside world, US culture appears to be fixated as if in a narcissistic trap.   NLP research became entangled within the US cultural obsession of Self-image, which is, by this description, analysing by excessively meta-ing in the visual sense, herby distorting the research.   It is possible that this was pointed out to the researchers at the time.   A more complex explanation of how the senses are organised to process information, may have been seen as too difficult to explain to a culture obsessed with wanting simplistic explanations, especially in reference to human behaviour.

Any philosophy can be a contradiction if not applied within correct context.   An example of this was stated by Albert Einstein when asked what he did not like about physics, answered  "The way it is taught at school"  His humorous response referred to measurement,   which without application has no meaning.     Physics is the science of measurement.

The original principles of NLP were based on the need for achieving specific outcomes, separately from just imagining outcomes.   The capacity to be objective requires external observation and comparative analysis as feedback to provide a means of measurement.   NLP theory without external application in the real world has questionable meaning, similar to learning physics without application.   It can be assumed that if Albert Einstein were alive today he would have viewed cult behaviour for achieving a PMA (positive mental attitude) by thinking about it without actually doing anything, as an oxymoron.

NLP is an addition and not a replacement to our understanding of human consciousness.   The subject of NLP does not include structural analysis of how our consciousness develops from birth, nor does it provide understanding about the un-consciousness scripts individuals and societies follow resulting in never ending conflicts and wars.   The techniques from which the original NLP was developed, were from people who had Jungian, Transactional Analysis or equivalent backgrounds.   A person skilled in Jungian and Transactional Analysis subjects can easily attain the additional NLP skills within a few months, as the majority already have.   Whereas a person only trained in NLP would require an extra one to two years of study to learn the other subjects, which are essential if one wishes to be fully effective.

The aim of this page is not intended to discredit the positive achievements of the original NLP research.   In years to come (when the dust has settled) the discoveries from the original NLP research will take their place in history as among the great achievements of modern psychology.   However, the historical social conditions that led to uncontrolled self-ambition and corporate greed that gave rise to the cult versions of NLP should be critically analysed.

There are many books published on NLP but, because the initial research was in-conclusive, the majority of NLP books and NLP web sites are mostly repetitive.   The list below contains the core of the original NLP material.   NLP books are readily available from Amazon and other suppliers.

Frogs into Princes     Richard Bandler and John Grinder
Structure of Magic (Volume 1 / 2)     Richard Bandler and John Grinder
Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programing     Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour
Therapeutic Metaphors     David Gordon
Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H Erickson (Volume 1 / 2)     Bandler and Grinder

Frogs into Princes     Structure of Magic     Introducing NLP     Therapeutic Metaphors     Milton H Erickson / Neuro-linguistic-programming / NLP and science / neurolin.html