MIND: NLP (was: totally logical)

Ramez Naam (ramezn@EXCHANGE.MICROSOFT.com)
Tue, 25 Nov 1997 17:57:15 -0800

Anders Sandberg writes:
> I'm a bit ambivalent about NLP. I have not yet read up heavily on it,
> but what I have read and tried seems to suggest that is mainly a large
> toolbox of more or less different tools with no real underlying Big
> Theory. That is of course not necessary as long as the tools work, and
> some certainly do.

Yep. It's a tenet of NLP that practitioners experiment, try what works,
and reject what doesn't work, with no real need for an underlying

That having been said, after relatively scant experience with it (a
handful of books over the past few months) I see the outlines of theory.
Or minimally of a set of extensions to the generally conceived
folk-psychological theory.

I'd characterize the key insights of NLP thus:

1) One's identity and emotional landscape are malleable. Indeed, they
are constantly changing in response to our internal dialog, subjective
experience, interpretation of that experience, the social mirror, etc..
This forms a feedback loop where [ identity & emotional landscape ]
-affects-> action (including internal dialog) -affects-> [ identity &
emotional landscape ]. Thus if we wish to affect our future identity &
emotional landscape, we can do so by modifying our subjective
experience, and also by taking certain actions that sculpt our future

2) Our subjective experience is constructed from multiple qualia, and
is usefully sculptable at this level. This is elementary cog sci, but
rarely put into use. For example, most of us at some time use internal
dialog to reason or motivate ourselves. However, it is far less common
to find individuals who consciously create imagery, sounds, or
kinesthetic experiences with the intent of self-motivation or more
generally self-modification. (Though I do grant that abstract thinkers
extremely often use visual imagination to explore abstract ideas.)

3) Both the /content/ and /structure/ of subjective experience affect
our emotions in predictable ways. The simplest example of this is the
set of NLP techniques commonly used to cure a phobia. Generally, it
seems, when a phobic individual is asked to describe the precise content
and structure of their imaginations of the subject of their phobia, the
phobia subject is seen from the first person, very large and near, often
exaggerated in proportion to the seen, in many colors, and with the
scene as a whole occupying the entire visual field.

By contrast, when asked to think of something they have extremely little
attachment to, most individuals report that it is moderately distant, of
dull color, moderately small, often seen in a third person perspective
with the individual in the picture at the same time, and quite often the
entire scene takes up a fraction of the visual field or is "bounded"
visually in some way by a border or frame.

The essence of the NLP "cure" to the phobia, then, is to have the phobic
individual imagine the subject of their phobia in a small, distant,
unthreatening way.

To me this points to a basic tenet that the /intensity/ and /immediacy/
of a sensation (including an imagined sensation) is proportional to the
intensity of the emotional response evoked. Again, fairly elementary
on the face of it - the insight of NLP is to use the imagination to
/change/ the intensity and immediacy of a stimuli to evoke the desired

This can be used both positively and negatively. For example, I may
have a goal which I rationally believe to be important to my well being
- exercise being a good example - but which I am relatively unmotivated
to pursue. The NLP solution to this is to vividly imagine the /results/
of the goal, and then link that to a vivid imagination of the /process/
I shall use in attaining that goal.

A final note on what NLP is and is not: NLP is a hammer and not a
compass. That is to say, it is a tool for making modifications of our
own emotional & motivational states, as opposed to a tool for abstract
thinking or problem solving. Of course, training in NLP includes
training on detailed observation of the world around you, as well as
detailed analysis of one's own life and goal structure, but I find this
to be peripheral to the actual toolset.

> But at the same time I notice the tendency for
> "believers" of NLP to believe a little bit too strongly in it for my
> taste - it seems to have some memetic "cult potential" (I do not
> suggest it is a real cult, just that it somehow promotes a cohesion
> among NLPers and their beliefs that I find unhealthy for critical
> thinking and strict empirical testing). Since I also recognize that
> this may just be my prejudices talking, I get even more ambivalent.

Heh. This is a tricky subject. On the one hand you are right to be
skeptical of NLP, if only for the massive, single-minded enthusiasm of
many of its proponents.

On the other hand, NLP is very much an attempt to leverage our
subjective experience to augment our objective capabilities. In this
light, belief in the effectiveness of NLP is a boon to the practitioner,
and disbelief is a detriment. This is essentially a manifestation of
the placebo affect: those who firmly believe in the cure are cured,
those who do not are not.

I wrestle with this from time to time and have come to the tentative
conclusion that the best course is to separate my /intent/ to cause
something to happen from my objective evaluation of the results. Which
is to say that I aim to get myself pumped up for an NLP technique,
vividly imagine it suceeding, /believe/ that it will work, and then once
I'm done I must return to a balanced, objective state to analyze the
results of the technique.

So far, as I said, I've been fairly happy with the results. I encourage
list members to pick up one of the better NLP introductory books and
give it a shot for themselves. NLPers seem to agree that the NLP
Comprehensive / Steve Andreas book (NLP: The New Technology of
Achievement) is the best all around introduction to the topic.

> Are there any outside examinations of the efficiacy of NLP methods?

I'm researching this now. So far I've found relatively little, however
a great many of the NLP techniques are essentially hypnotic techniques,
for which there is a fair bit of evidence of efficiacy. When I've
compiled my findings I'll post them to the list.