Re: Flavors of NLP (was Re: Totally logical?)

Damien Broderick (
Thu, 27 Nov 1997 17:23:17 +0000

At 08:29 PM 11/25/97 -0800, MMB wrote:

> I believe that some branch of the US military did some
>investigation into the utility of some published/promoted NLP techniques,
>but I doubt their applications and investigative methodology would satisfy

Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, eds, *Enhancing Human Performance:
Issues, Theories, and Techniques*, National Academy Press, 1987.

Here's a bit from my book THE LOTTO EFFECT:


It was distinctly creepy, when the full report from the Committee on
Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance was published in 1988,
to read of `an initiative within the Army to consider techniques based on
paranormal phenomena, for example, extrasensory perception to view remote
sites and psychokinesis to influence the operation of distant machines.'

Had the Defense Department gone mad? Not entirely. The Committee did not,
for example, examine the credentials of the Flat Earth Society. It
neglected to study the guidance and ancient wisdom said to be available
from the stars, unlike its Commander-in-Chief who, it was later revealed,
never took a consequential step without the all-clear from Nancy's

The methodologies under scrutiny were more sober than that - but only just.
Apart from parapsychology, various programs meant to boost psychological
cohesion and effectiveness were perused. Suggestive Accelerative Learning
and Teaching, for instance, employs `a combination of physical relaxation,
mental concentration, guided imagery, suggestive principles, and baroque
music with the intent of improving classroom performance'. This discipline
has its own academic journal, based at Iowa State University. Hemispheric
Synchronisation, or Hemi-Sync, is advocated by an early out-of-body
enthusiast, Robert Monroe, and purports to do you good by running a
binaural beat into your head through two earphones. SyberVision uses
expert coaching by videotape, augmenting your powers via mental rehearsal.
NeuroLinguistic Programming is perhaps the best known, a kind of New Age
hot-tub behaviourism meant to put you in charge of the control procedures
said to script and orchestrate our lives - just what the Army needed to
spruce up its officer training regime.

By and large, the results reported were disappointing. None of these
technique packages were thought likely to turn out supermen. Learning
during sleep, for example, was debunked. Hemi-Sync's bid to integrate the
two cerebral hemispheres failed to impress the Committee, as did `attempts
to increase information-processing capacity by presenting material
separately to the two hemispheres', which is rather a shame. Visual
concentration was written off. Still, the Committee did recommend
follow-ups on several lines: accelerated learning, biofeedback, and
NeuroLinguistic Programming - even though it found `no scientific evidence
that neurolinguistic programming is an effective strategy for exerting


...less saliently...


Indeed, even a cursory reading of the very sprightly chapter `Paranormal
Phenomena' in Enhancing Human Performance suggests that right from the
outset the committee had its tongue well over into its cheek. This is the
way avowals of the paranormal are outlined:

`The claimed phenomena and applications range from the incredible to the
outrageously incredible. The "antimissile time warp", for example, is
supposed to somehow deflect attack by nuclear warheads so that they will
transcend time and explode among the ancient dinosaurs, thereby leaving us
unharmed but destroying many dinosaurs (and, presumably, some of our
evolutionary ancestors).'

Who is alleged to be making these preposterous claims, here presented as if
they are representative of the parapsychological research community?
Anyone who has laboured through the statistics-encrusted pages of the
Journal of Parapsychology will be dazed at the impertinence of this passage.

The committee had not exhausted their fun and games. `Other psychotronic
weapons,' they added, `such as the "hyperspatial nuclear howitzer", are
claimed to have equally bizarre capabilities. Many of the sources cite the
claim that Soviet psychotronic weapons were responsible for the 1976
outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, as well as the 1963 sinking of the
nuclear submarine Thresher.'

Of course, this is good funny copy, a hoot. The only question is, if
serious parapsychology were as off the wall as this, why would the US Army
be shelling out bucks to inquire into its possible contributions to
national security? Of course, it's not - this is persiflage, intended to
alert professional onlookers to the light-hearted sense of fun with which
the luckless committee members are pressing on with their unwanted task of
mucking out the stables. (It's a filthy job, but someone's gotta do it.)

What kind of evidence would have satisfied these scrutineers? General
objectives are listed: `replicability, robustness, lawfulness,
manipulability, and coherent theory'. It is granted in advance that
mainstream parapsychologists deny the likelihood of finding strict
replicability, a position based on many years of experiments which
nevertheless present other kinds of lawful recurrence. So in order to
apply their own criteria, `the entire committee made a site visit to Cleve
Backster's laboratory in San Diego', the sole on-site `experiment'
witnessed and reported.

The knowledgeable reader's jaw sags. Cleve Backster's laboratory?
Backster, as the report notes, `is a polygraph specialist who had at one
time helped develop interrogation techniques for the Central Intelligence
Agency and now runs his own polygraph school in San Diego'. By no stretch
of the imagination is Backster a research parapsychologist. His small fame
derives from reports of his rather silly and notably sloppy experiments
with sensitive mind-reading philodendrons in the grotesque 1970s'
bestseller The Secret Life of Plants, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher

With a straight face, the committee members watched one of their number
spit into a tube and then attempt to influence the electrical activity of
his shielded sputum leucocytes from another room. Amazingly enough,
Backster's program failed to rate highly with the committee - and, by
rhetorical decree, was imagined to take the reputation of serious
parapsychologists with it down (as it were) the tube.


If the parapsychology community doubted that their claims had even got
through the door, one sees that there was more than paranoia involved in
this suspicion. In their reply, they point out that another background
paper (along the lines of the one provided by Alcock), commissioned from
Monica Harris and Robert Rosenthal from Harvard, was effectively
`disappeared' when its conclusions proved disagreeable to Hyman.

Suppression of evidence? Consider their case:

`Rosenthal is a leading social science methodologist and a pioneer in the
development of meta-analytic techniques...' write Palmer, Honorton and
Utts. Such techniques were used by both Hyman and Honorton in their famous
debate over the reality of Ganzfeld, and permit a batch of heterogeneous
studies to be correlated and boiled down into a single robust measure,
despite surface differences.

`These authors undertook a comparative study of the major topics reviewed
by the Committee [that is, including sleep-learning, motivational, NLP,
etc] and concluded that "only the Ganzfeld ESP studies... regularly meet
the basic requirements of sound experimental design"... On a 25-point
scale of "overall quality", the Ganzfeld experiments were given a rating of
19, whereas the other (nonparapsychological) areas reviewed received
ratings from 3 to 13.'

In other words, on methodological grounds, the paranormal data were more
solid than any of the other candidates.

This is not the kind of report that members of the executive committee of
CSICOP enjoy hearing from their consultants. It is the kind of thing that
might make a skeptic think again. Well, no, actually. The published
chapter in Enhancing Human Performance doesn't mention Harris and
Rosenthal, though their findings are cited in the chapter on Accelerated
Learning. Still, this omission by itself does not constitute evidence for
suppression. What does is quite breathtaking:

`Incredibly, at one stage of the process, John Swets, Chairman of the
[overall] Committee, actually phoned Rosenthal and asked him to withdraw
the parapsychology section of his paper.' Rosenthal refused to do so. A
certain toing and froing ensued. `The overall behaviour of the Committee,'
conclude Palmer and his co-writers, `suggests that it was eager to give
Rosenthal's dissenting views as little exposure as possible.'


...but I digress...

Damien Broderick