NLP articles that are written by working professionals in the Neuro Linguistic and Hypnosis fields.

Do you have questions about the study or application of NLP?

Are you interested in discovering more about true human potential?

Would you like to learn NLP or Hypnosis in a way that allows the possibility of good things to just begin elegantly turning up in your life?

You’ve come to the right place!

Two Ways To Leverage Your Performance

You can let your performance be affected in different ways, or you can choose.

Some people think moods happen to them and there’s nothing they can do about it except wait until they feel better. Other people access outside sources to feel empowered (commonly drugs or food).

What if I could give you two methods by which you could change your mood, consistently when you feel it being,  affected negatively?

There are more than two, and you do not have to go out of your way to find them, because you already have them. So I really encourage you try at least one consistently.

Choose Your Words Carefully

In his book The Hidden Dimension, Edward T. Hall makes it quite clear when he cites Benjamin Lee Whorf:

“Language is more than just a medium for expressing thought. It is, in fact, a major element in the formation of thought”.

Think about that for a moment. How powerful is it to be aware of that when you want to change your state?

If you change the way you express your feelings you will be able to change how you feel at the moment. We shall test that now:

Think of the last time you were feeling ‘annoyed’ about something rather simple, like being stuck in traffic for example.

How would you express yourself at that point, what type of words would you use? What type of feelings do you associate to those words? See where we’re going with this?

Is there anything you want to become exceptional at, and be so effective that you get astonishing results every time? Does that sound appealing? What if you changed the word ‘exceptional’ for ‘very good’. Would you still think of that situation in the same way. Feel free to change it back, keep it or pick another descriptor.

So here’s your homework for today. Fill in the blanks in the following sentence with different words and be aware of how you represent those instances:

For example:

I want to be very good at, getting what I want

I want to be exceptionally effective, at reaching, my goals

Now it’s your turn:

I want to be_____ at _____

Remember this is only an example to illustrate my purpose, so, in real life, feel free to throw away the sentence structure and use the most empowering language you can find.

So next time you’re feeling ‘annoyed’ or ‘angry’ about something try using different words to express your feelings. And pay attention to your body response.

Change Your Posture

Your physiology not only shows how you feel, but also affects how you feel. By physiology I mean your gestures, posture, breathing and other elements that we won’t explore in detail right now.

Have you ever wondered what all the fuss was about disciplines like yoga, for example? You don’t need to be an expert in yoga to understand what I’m talking about. Just by seeing a photo of someone doing yoga you can get an idea of how they would feel. Basic yoga teaches controlling your breathing and aligning your spine, two of the main elements of our physiology. The asanas are not necessarily relaxing, that comes later, but they can be quite invigorating. The first word that comes to mind when I see a yoga pose, is “dynamic”.

“Your physiology not only shows how you feel, but also affects how you feel”.

Do this thought experiment: When was the last time you saw someone feeling sad? What did they look like? What was their posture like? How were they’re shoulders positioned? They probably looked something like this:

Now imagine someone who looks and acts as if they were confident. What do they look like? Look at their posture and shoulders, how are they positioned?

See the difference? Don’t think for a second this is a coincidence!

Now, try it for yourself! Try moving your body in ways you’ve never done before and be aware of the changes. Want to feel different, well use your body differently. It is that simple!

The, next time you’re feeling ‘down’, get up and go for a walk or do anything active to change your physiology. Be aware of your response after half a minute or so. Take an inventory and pay attention to how you’re using your body and how you’re expressing yourself.

“If don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude”
– Maya Angelou

It all starts with you.

That’s it for today. Now go out there and, take your next step towards Exceptional Effectiveness, by trying this model the next time you’re in need for change. Start small at first and see it for yourself. It will change your life, just like it changed mine.

Remember this is practical advice not just another theory, so do go out and try it, and let me know how you went.

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful, share it!

Six Steps To Setting Achievable Goals

Step 1 – What Do You Want?

Setting goals is something we all do, especially in business. Now, the reality is that only a small percentage of us actually go ahead and achieve them.

However, although there are plenty of models out there for setting outcomes there’s one you probably haven’t heard of yet (or you may if you’re NLP trained): the ‘Well Formed Outcome’

One of the advantages of it is that is as simple as it sounds, yet extremely powerful and realistic. Developed by Dr. John Grinder, a professor of linguistics and co-creator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the ‘Well Formed Outcome’ takes into consideration the a series of steps when setting achievable goals/outcomes:

What do you want?

Pretty straight forward, right? Think again…

In my own experience a very large percentage of the people I’ve coached consistently talk about what they DON’T want.

Which is a good starting point, except most of them don’t go beyond ‘not wanting’ on to establishing what they actually want. For example how many times have you find yourself saying something like:

‘I don’t want to be broke.’

‘I don’t want to lose my job.’

Have you ever tried saying instead?

‘I want to be wealthy.’

‘I want to keep/get promoted/be the best at my job.’

Can you see the difference? Say it our loud, pay attention to how different you feel when say the latter.

Now you’re starting to put your attention on the things that matter rather than the ones you don’t want. Don’t kick yourself, we’ve all done it in the past! But now it’s time for a change.

Here’s something for you to think about today:

Have you ever bought yourself a new car or shirt and then suddenly find it everywhere you look? If you put your attention to the thing you want you’ll see them everywhere, if you put your attention to the things you DON’T want and you’ll find them everywhere too.

Step 2 – Have Clear Intentions

Now that you know what you want rather than what you don’t want, let’s look at step two: considering intentions and consequences.

Many of us set goals or outcomes without really knowing what we really want them for or even considering the consequences of getting those goals? I’ll explain:

Have you ever wanted something badly, and then when you got it realised that it was not what you thought you wanted?

If you said yes, read on.

Knowing what you want things for (i.e. having clear intentions) will avoid this from happening in the future. By knowing what need your goal is really fulfilling you will be able to assess your outcomes more holistically and give you more options. It will also help you foresee some other consequences that will result from achieving that goal that you might not even have considered.

So the way it works is very simple:

  1. First you set your goal by asking yourself a simple question: ‘what do I want?’
  2. Then, you consider the intention that this goal will be fulfilling, i.e ‘what do I want this for?’
  3. Thirdly, you consider what consequences (good and bad) will derive from you achieving your goal.
  4. And lastly, do these consequences meet your need?

It is very simple, yet extremely powerful.

For example, imaging how useful this would be when deciding on what career path to follow.

Say you want to work in a particular industry because you want to earn a lot of money. So you go ahead and start following that path. However after some time you realise that what you wanted was not the money (goal) but the freedom (need/intention) that money would bring you. However now that you have started working in that particular area you are earning great money, although the hours are so long that you don’t have any freedom or even time to spend that money (un-matching consequences).

So you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation because the consequences of your goals do not match you intentions. However, had you known your intentions you would’ve changed your goal until you found one that would bring you consequences that matched your intention.

I’ve seen this happen hundreds of times with friends, family and colleagues at work, and I can’t help to think to myself: how much easier it would have been to just run through those four steps before making such an important decision.

Step 3 – How Will You Know You Got It?

Having a clear idea of you will accept for evidence for achieving your goal is of utmost importance. Think about it, you wouldn’t accept a bicycle in return for buying a car, would you?

Sound simple, and it is, but most people forget to do it..

For example, if you’re looking for ‘wealth’, how will you know when you find it?

Is there a specific sum of money you will see in your bank account, or maybe wealth means something else to you. It could be having millions in your bank account or it could be having a family or some people even measure wealth in knowledge.

What is important here is that you define what evidence you will accept.

Ask yourself, how will I know when I have achieved my outcome?

Let’s say that your outcome is to get promoted at work, what will you accept as evidence for your promotion?

Here are a few examples but feel free to add your own:

You’ll receive a written notification and see your name on it

You’ll hear your promotion being announced out loud at the company’s morning meeting.

Having a clear of what you want to achieve is key to reaching your goal. Make it as real as you can inside your mind, so you can re-create it outside of it.

Step 4 – Be Ecological

I’m not talking about saving the whales here. This one refers to personal ecology. I’ll explain:

None of us live in isolation from the world, so most likely you have formed a number of relationships with different people or groups of people. Think about your family or groups of friends for example. These are systems in which we play a role and our actions will have an effect on the other members of that system. Therefore, these systems have to be handled with ecology.

Being aware of how our actions can impact those systems is an integral part of setting our outcomes

By being aware I mean exactly that: knowing that your actions will impact the system in one way or another. Whether it is for your benefit or not is up to you to assess.

Bare in mind that in achieving a goal there will be costs involved, not only economically but time, energy, but any others you can think of.

The question here is: are the cost and consequences of achieving this outcome acceptable to you?

For example, if I want to take on a course on professional development to help me improve my chances of getting a promotion it would be useful to be aware of how doing this course will impact in areas such as my social life, my family, workload, ‘me time’ and any others you can think of.

Once you’re aware of how those areas might be affected the next question is: am I willing to accept the costs and the consequences of me achieving the outcome?

If , yes, go ahead and do it. If no, it doesn’t mean abandon the ship… All you need to do is some more exploration to be able to create some options.

Ecology is often overlooked and this can result in negative consequences that otherwise you could’ve avoided.

Step 5 – Take Inventory

Life, like business is about maximizing the use of resources, but in order to do this you must be aware first of what resources you have and which ones you’re still to find.

So at this stage it’s important to ask yourself the following questions:

What resources do I already have in order to achieve my outcome? and, what resources, if any, do I still need to find in order to achieve my outcome?

Once you have identified these two, think of how you’re going to find the ones you need and how you’re going to leverage the ones you already have.

These can be people, time, money, beliefs, values and any other one you can think of. What matters is that you’re aware of, the ones you have and make yourself accountable for the ones you’re still to get. By making yourself accountable for acquiring the resources you need, you’ll switch your attention to working out a way of finding them. It is important that at this stage you ask yourself the ‘right’ questions. For example let’s say you’ve started building a business and looking for ways to attract customers:

By asking questions like ‘why is people not coming to me?, ‘why is the competition getting more customers?’, ‘why is life so hard?’ you’re not likely to get engage in a creative process.

Try instead something like ‘how do I attract new customers?’, ‘how do I earn my customers’ loyalty?’, ‘how can I satisfy my customers needs in a unique way?’, ‘how can I offer them value?’ and the list goes on.

You get the gist, right? There’s a massive difference between the questions you ask yourself. After all, your mind will give you an answer to the questions you ask… Whether you like the answer or not.

So, go ahead start asking the ‘right’ questions and you’ll get the ‘right’ answers. In other words, put your attention on what you want and you’ll find it everywhere, put your attention on what you don’t want.. and you’ll find that everywhere too., 

However, bare in mind that resources will vary from one situation to the next. What’s useful in one situation is not necessarily useful in some others.

Finally, the importance of taking inventory must not be underestimated as it will give you a clear picture of where you stand in regards to your goal or target.

Step 6 Congruency Check

Now that you’ve gone through the previous 5 steps and have gathered more relevant information about your objective and purpose, as well as how it will affect you and those around you, it’s time to ask yourself the one more question:

Do I still want it? Is it still worth pursuing?

By now you would have most probably made a few changes in your map, so the purpose of this question is to make sure you’re still congruent about what you want.

So, if the answer is yes, go ahead and do it. If the answer it’s no, don’t panic, just go ahead and review the areas we explored before and change whatever you need to until you’re happy your outcome meets your new criteria.

Now go out there and try them out. Sit down with a piece of paper and think of something you want and go through the list step by step (if you haven’t been doing it so far) – or do it inside your head. What matters is that you actually put it to the test and see the results for yourself. You now have some of the tools necessary to set effective goals and get exceptional results.

  1. What do I want? As opposed to what I don’t want.
  2. What do I want this for? And do the consequences of me getting it match the purpose of me wanting the outcome? “If the consequences match your intention, you have an outcome worth pursuing” says Jules Collingwood, one of the co-founders of INSPIRITIVE.
  3. How will I know when I have achieved this outcome?
  4. Are the cost and consequences of achieving this outcome acceptable to you and others?
  5. Do I have all the resources that I need? Am I missing any? If so, how do I get them?
  6. Knowing all this, do I still want it? Is it still worth pursuing?

So that’s it for today. Now go out there and, take your next step towards Exceptional Effectiveness, by trying this model the next time you’re making a decision. Start small first and see it for yourself. It will change your life, just like it changed mine., 

Remember this is practical advice not just another theory, so do go out and try it, and, let me know how you went!

If you found this article useful, share it!

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP


Thoughts On Framing Change Work

Framing Change Work

When you think of coaching or doing change work with someone, do you expect your new client to launch into a process with the capacity to follow all your instructions? Have you ever thought about your own impressions and expectations of your ability as a coach? Have you noticed how much quicker and simpler it is working with advanced students who can respond to requests given in shorthand and know what you are on about? As a client, have you ever wanted more framing and clearer instruction from your coach so you can follow their guidance?

As a student of NLP in the 1980s, I was introduced to Dr Milton H Erickson’s work and heard stories of his incredible results from people who had met him. I read selections from his “Collected Papers”, and several books on his cases. The impression I got both from reading and from the senior members of the NLP community was that one aspired to do the quality of client work at a level where any client’s experience of change could, with the appropriate identification protection, become the subject of a ‘client story’.

As time passed, other people wrote books of client stories, all of which were fascinating and led to vastly increased health, wealth, happiness and generative change for the clients in the stories. I continued to imagine that most client stories related to a single session, other than a few of Erickson’s long term interventions, such as ‘Harold’ in “Uncommon Therapy” by Jay Haley, who was seen by Erickson intermittently for five years. Harold was definitely an exception. During those five years he went from being a homeless, unskilled farm labourer to a skilled dancer, shorthand typist and university graduate who could form and sustain relationships with other people and hold down a responsible job.

Living inside largely unconscious presuppositions about the required quality of work and what is possible in a single session with clients was generally sustainable and certainly produced coaching skills to be proud of. But what if other options can produce interesting results? When I read David Calof’s introduction to his book of client stories, “The Couple who became Each Other“, pennies dropped. He stated that he had picked the most memorable and striking client stories from his collection and that not all clients made such spectacular shifts. Furthermore, he said that although each story may read like a single session, most of them are condensed from anything between five or six sessions up to 18 months worth of work. This put a whole new frame on what is possible when coaching.

NLP Education

Chris and Jules Collingwood, founders of INSPIRITIVE, have developed the new standard in NLP training: The Graduate Certificate in NLP. Enquire now to see how this qualification can change life.

I went back to Milton Erickson and discovered a similar pattern. Just because a story reads like a single session, does not mean it has not been condensed from a longer interaction. More exploration followed and I found I had ignored or deleted some really good information. When Erickson worked with patients, he made sure they were trained in accessing useful trance and other altered states before he embarked on the serious stuff. There were people he directed to his students and associates, ostensibly to help them research a topic. These patients were really being taught to direct their attention and alter their state with facility so that Erickson could do change work with them in a timely fashion. Others, he trained by example, either his own or via an associate he invited into the office.

Despite a cultural bias towards single sessions with amazing results, I discovered that despite written and told stories that may suggest otherwise, the most famous and able coaches and trainers find ways to do what has always been normal to me in an NLP training context, but was not normal in coaching. They take clients as they find them, pace and lead them to have new experiences that support their development immediately and can be used in combination thereafter to facilitate generative change. Then they lead the trained client through advanced processes knowing the client has the prerequisite skills to keep up and stay with the process through to the end with all its emergent benefits.

Changing the Frame

This change of frame on coaching and one to one change work created a radically different context for my thinking about coaching. Now I approach it far more like training. There is time to offer more framing, training and instruction to interested clients. It helps develop rapport and credibility as there is time and space to pace their initial presuppositions about what is possible and get a better quality of attention to work with. Even if it takes a bit longer, creating room to explore skills and learn essential elements through live experience changes the whole process. When a client has time to become familiar with the building blocks of thinking, taking different perspectives on a context on demand and discovering by experience that our states are not arbitrary dumps on us out of the blue or from other people, even this can be life changing. Minimally, these skills enable that client to participate in major generative change processes which otherwise they might not countenance at all.

I still work by the session if people want that, but I am definitely considering other options as well. Some of my latest developments and favourite pieces of change work do require some basic skill training to work at their most effective and it would be fun to share them with a wider client base.


Calof, D. L., Simon, R. (1997). The Couple Who became each Other; Stories of healing and transformation from a leading hypnotherapist. New York: Bantam.

Erickson, M.H., Rossi, E.L. (1989)., The Collected papers of Milton H Erickson Vol 1; The nature of hypnosis and suggestion. New York: Irvington Publishers Inc.

Haley, J. (1993). Uncommon Therapy; The psychiatric techniques of Milton H. Erickson MD. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

30th October 2014

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful hit the share button!

Is There A Coaching Model Or Template In NLP?


Coaching is a popular application for NLP patterns. The intention is to assist a client to solve one or more problems, create and discover outcomes for themselves and to provide processes whereby the client can organise their thoughts and experience to achieve their outcomes. This requires the coach to gather useful information without being drawn into stories or content, to marshall that information using their pattern detection skills and choose questions and process instructions to provide the necessary guidance to the client, all while observing non-verbal communication and listening for language patterns and speech patterns.

Coaching includes some similarities to participating in training exercises, all of which provide a context for developing skills and familiarity with NLP principles as well as processes. These include information gathering, sensory observation and calibration of an exercise partner and the capacity to ask pertinent questions and guide someone through a process. Coaching also requires additional skills and knowledge, related to framing and managing the coaching process and choosing the questions and interventions they offer to fit each client’s responses based on the patterns the client exhibits and or appears to be missing. Coaches also have to manage themselves and their context to ensure that their clients can maintain productive and resourceful states to make their changes.

A coaching session needs a framework in which to operate. While NLP does not espouse a formal model for coaching, it does include processes which lend themselves to that function. The most basic is the Present State compared with Desired State model. In this model, we seek to discover the client’s perception of their present state and their outcome or what they want instead. We can probably assume that if a client has a present state and wants a desired state, they are experiencing something preventing them from making that change by themselves. That something may become the subject of the coaching session. Minimally, it provides the starting point for gathering more information to flesh out the thinking and behaviour patterns the client has been using and the patterns they could use to greater effect.

While there is no direct mention of outcomes or intentions for outcomes, a competent coach will be aware that having a client discover an intention for wanting their outcome widens the scope for creating a satisfying and functional change that fits the client’s values and contexts. However, it is not necessarily common knowledge that change interventions are more effective if made in a larger frame (that contains one or more solutions), than the problem’s own frame (which does not contain solutions). Less experienced coaches will probably appreciate a coaching model that provides more guidance and reminds them to investigate intentions, evidence for outcomes and ecology (evidence that the changes proposed and made will be beneficial to the client and not disrupt anything in their greater system that matters to them). These concepts are instilled in a good NLP training, but may take time to become second nature.

The Outcome, Intention and Consequence process used with well formedness conditions from the Well-Formed Outcome provides a complete framework for running a single coaching session or a planned series of sessions. It can be used to create a coaching needs analysis, a proposal, a coaching contract and a coaching frame or model. The Present State – Desired State model provides enough framing to get started and then relies on the coach having sufficient expertise to ask penetrating process questions and identify and track multiple patterns simultaneously. A fully articulated outcome model provides the less experienced coach with a complete set of prompts to get them going and guide them through the coaching process, provided they have the necessary skills to be coaching in the first place.

Coaching Models: An Outcome Oriented Model

  1. Establish an Outcome
  2. Establish the intention for the outcome
  3. Establish evidence for the outcome
  4. Identify resources to achieve the outcome
  5. Check that the outcome is under the client’s aegis, (by the client and for the client)
  6. Check the consequences (costs and benefits) of getting the outcome are acceptable
  7. Check the consequences of having and maintaining the outcome are acceptable
  8. Check that the client wants that outcome and in a timely manner

1. Outcome

Establish one or more outcomes with the client and if there are several, discover if they are related or examples of something more general that might itself respond to an intervention.

2. Intentions

Identify an intention for an outcome to pursue this session. An intention, by nature provides a larger scope in which to work, thereby providing the client with more choice about what they want and how they express that. Sometimes they will prefer the content of their intention and choose to use that for an outcome.

3. Evidence

Identify sensory based evidence of the client having their outcome. What will they see, hear and feel that lets them know they have achieved their outcome.

4. Resources

Identify resources both to achieve the outcome and to facilitate the client to make the changes they want to achieve the outcome and meet the intention

Identify the present state or limiting factor. Something has been preventing the client from making the change they want or from achieving the outcome they have identified. This is likely to be something the client cannot articulate or even identify without assistance and may become the basis for an intervention.

5. Aegis

Check that the outcomes are by the client, for the client and not for third parties. (If an outcome is for someone else, go to the intention. Pursue higher levels of intention until you find one that is by the client and for the client).

6. Consequences (costs and benefits)

Check for ecology and cost-effectiveness of achieving and having the outcome. NLP change processes work best when the client is congruent about the change they ask for. However they can also work for a limited period if the client is not congruent. It is the coach’s job to ensure that the client considers how their choice fits their values and greater system.

7. Congruency

Review outcome and intention for new present state. Outcomes can evolve in the presence of new information and possibilities. Recycling through the outcome can provide further direction and updating of the client’s choices

8. Time Frame

Check that the client wants that outcome and in a timely manner

Notice that all the above is information gathering. When a coach uses this process to guide their work in a coaching context, they will learn what they need to identify and offer a suitable intervention for that client. Given that the client becomes aware of relevant material via the questioning process itself, the intervention the coach uses will be more in the way of facilitating change that has begun already. Process based information gathering can be all that is needed for some clients to make the changes they wanted.

This model does not specify skill training related matters such as the need for establishing and maintaining rapport with each client nor how and when to make or change the direction of an intervention. It is used here simply as a guide for how to frame one or more coaching sessions. Other business uses have been mentioned in passing, but this model can be used anywhere where the user needs high quality information and verifiable non-verbal delivery of that information.

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

Found this article useful? Share with your network!

Human Cognitive Architecture and Cognitive Load Theory

Discuss the Cognitive Structures and Processes that shape our Human Cognitive Architecture. How can our Knowledge assist people to Teach and Communicate?

Note. This is an advanced paper that we recommend to people who have had extensive training in NLP or the cognitive sciences. In this essay, human learning capacity will be considered with reference to the Modal Model of human cognitive architecture, which draws on empirical research for support and exists within an evolutionary framework. This description of human cognitive architecture Baddeley (1968), (1992), (2001), Ericsson & Kintsch (1995), provides the framework used by Sweller, Van Merrienboer and Pass (19880, to develop and research the cognitive load theory of learning and its applications to the design of effective learning programs.

Human Cognitive Architecture

Architecture is the description of structures or processes to produce reliable results that meet the specification. Cognitive architecture applies to a thinking or computing device that accepts data input, applies processes to the data, stores the data and produces output, all within a problem solving frame. Human cognitive architecture describes the necessary and sufficient conditions for a human to input data, process the data, store the processed data which now becomes information and output the result. Thus, it is a system for processing information. In humans, this is achieved via the brain and the rest of the body using sensory input, mental process and memory to generate demonstrable changes in behaviour.

There are two major directions for models of human cognitive architecture, either of which would lend itself to formulating a theory of effective learning. One direction, which first arose with Maudsley (1876) and James (1890), proposed that memory had two elements, in which a short term memory enabled part of its contents to be stored permanently in a long term memory. Little change occurred during the next 50 years, as Behaviourism became the dominant psychological theory. Whatever took place between input and output could not be studied, as it resided in a ‘black box’, hence only observable behaviour was available for observation.

The Magic Number Seven, plus or minus Two, Miller (1956), along with the Macey Conferences on cybernetics and cognition, started the Cognitive Revolution and brought the attention of researchers back to the investigation of memory structures and learning. James’ (1890) original two part model was revived and subjected to further work, in due course becoming the Modal Model of memory in three parts. This will be discussed below, as it provides the intellectual underpinning for Cognitive Load Theory.

The other direction of memory structure and learning research leans towards a recent connectionist model involving neural nets based on brain function, McClelland and Rogers (2003). In this model, parallel distributed processors act on information, which resides in the relationships between different parts of the system.

A related network model is the Adaptive Character of Thought-Rational, or ACT-R model, Anderson and Matessa (1997), which includes elements of connectionism. This model also concentrates on how information processing takes place, with reference to stored declarative and procedural knowledge. In this model, declarative knowledge is equivalent to fact or content and procedural knowledge is equivalent to action taken, or process. ACT-R also has elements in common with the Modal Model of memory, in that it seeks to provide a unifying theory of human cognitive architecture and proposes a serial memory process with static storage elements for declarative knowledge, Anderson and Matessa (1997).

The Modal Model of Information Processing

The Modal Model of Information Processing has influenced memory structure theory through the second half of the 20th century. It proposes a serial processing, static storage system of memory based on three stages of memory structures: Input, or acquisition, storage and subsequent retrieval of information. The Modal Model in its three stage form was articulated by several researchers, including Newell and Simon (1972), who approached memory and information processing from a computing stance via human processing models. Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968), provide a representative description of the Modal Model in human processing. They proposed that input entered via sensory memory, subject to processing in short term memory and proceeded to storage in long term memory . Output then returned from long term memory, via short term memory.

In Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) model of memory structures, short term memory is subdivided into a temporary store and a control processing function. This was changed later by Baddeley and Hitch (1974) and developed further by Baddeley (1992), to become known as Working Memory and to have a processing and retrieval function in relationship to long term memory.

Sensory Memory

Sensory memory describes perception of incoming data via sensory registers, Bruning et al. (2004). These are specific to each sense and hold data for a very short time. Sperling (1960), established that the maximum useful life of a four letter datum in a visual register is 500 milliseconds and Darwin, Turvey and Crowder, (1972) established that auditory input decays after three to four seconds. The function of sensory memory is to perceive data input and make it available to short term memory.

Short Term or Working Memory

Short term memory, as described by Miller (1956), has the capacity to hold seven plus or minus two chunks of information at any given time. Miller did not specify whether the chunks of information were novel or familiar, interrelated or discrete; simply that a chunk is a unit of knowledge. Although Miller excluded relationships from his count of units of knowledge, for the purposes of this essay, references to seven plus or minus two chunks will be used to include relata as chunks. Miller (1956) also coined the term ‘Working Memory’ in the same paper, though Baddeley (2001) was the first to adopt it in place of ‘Short Term Memory’ when he proposed a more comprehensive model than Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) two part temporary store and control process centre.

Baddeley and Hitch (1974) proposed that working memory, as it will be known hereafter, comprised a visuospatial sketch pad for recording images, a phonological loop like a tape loop for recording sounds and a central executive to direct attention and manage processing in the two slave systems. The life of new information in working memory is three to four seconds unless the information is repeated.

Baddeley and Hitch (1974), observed that attention is usually limited to a maximum of four chunks of information when working memory is engaged in a task. This applies where there are relationships between units of information, which have to be considered simultaneously with that information. However Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) established a link between working memory and long term memory to account for those occasions where working memory appears to hold many chunks of information simultaneously.

Ericsson and Kintsch (1995), and Baddeley (2001), distinguish between the capacity of working memory when it is processing new information and new relationships compared with processing prior knowledge drawn from long term memory. In this model, the idea of a central executive is rejected in favour of using relevant information recalled from long term memory to guide the flow of process in working memory. Ericsson and Kintsch (1995), describe this function as ‘Long Term Working Memory’.

Long Term Memory

Long term memory is a permanent store of experience, knowledge and process, all of which is held outside conscious awareness until specific knowledge structures are recalled into conscious awareness in working memory. In contrast with working memory, which Baddeley (1986 p. 34), describes as “The temporary storage of information that is being processed in any of a range of cognitive tasks”, long term memory is not only permanent, but also highly structured. It functions in a flexible manner that enables continuing refinements to accommodate cross-referencing and increasing levels of domain specific expertise.

Long term memory, according to Baddeley (2001), does not have an executive function. While increasing knowledge is reclassified in larger chunks or more refined and automated schemata in long term memory, information retrieval is initiated via working memory. Thus, conscious attention is brought to bear on a topic using working memory, and associated information is recalled from long term memory. It is as if working memory provides long term memory with an initial set of criteria from which to search and the results of the search modify the search criteria.

Components of Long Term Memory

Bruning et al. (2004), propose a model of long term memory that draws on research from Anderson (1993), Tulving (2002) among others and is represented graphically below:

Long Term Memory (implicit and explicit)

Declarative Knowledge

Procedural Knowledge

Conditional Knowledge

Semantic Memory Episodic Memory

Declarative knowledge denotes factual information, such as Pythagoras’ Theorem: “For any right angled triangle, the square of the length of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides”.

Procedural knowledge denotes process information, for example, to demonstrate the validity of Pythagoras’ Theorem:

Draw a right angled triangle large enough to measure and small enough to fit on your substrate (paper, whiteboard, sandy beach etc.)

Nominate the hypotenuse as A and the other two sides as B and C respectively.

Using a suitable scale, measure the length of each side (A, B, C) of the triangle.

Find the square of length A, then B, then C. (To do this, multiply the value of A by A, the value of B by B and the value of C by C).

Add B squared to C squared and compare with A squared. (Declarative statement: They should be equal).

Conditional knowledge is knowledge about the content of procedural knowledge; that is, when and how to use it. For example; the appropriate times and places to apply Pythagoras’ Theorem are when teaching maths or ancient history to 8-10 year old children or ancient Greek to 13 year old children. Other contexts include using it as an example in the context of this essay or using a physical right angled triangle as an example of an analogue computer to compute Pythagoras’ Theorem.

Semantic and episodic memory functions are sub-classes of declarative knowledge, Tulving (2002). Semantic memory contains knowledge of the world, such as the fact that cats are furry, except Cornish Rex, which is bald. Meaning is formalised, culturally supported and linguistically common to native speakers of that language.

Episodic memory contains personal experience, childhood memory and conversations with people, Bruning et al. (2004). It is accessed with personal reference to times, places and events. Episodic memory contains knowledge learned informally by association.

Here is an example of an English ex-governess using episodic memory to great effect in her teaching. Miss Sherwin’s school had 24 pupils aged between five and ten years old. When a group of children was reciting multiplication tables, other children were present, including younger ones. When Miss Sherwin observed a younger child singing along with the table reciters, she invited the child to join them. Every child left her school effortlessly word perfect in their multiplication tables.

There are two other categories of information held in long term memory; implicit and explicit information, Bruning et al. (2004). These simply refer to information to which a person has conscious access and information which is acted upon or information which is inferred without conscious access. Scholl (2005) identifies a normally implicit presupposition in humans that light comes from above, with reference to an optical illusion that uses six convex or concave discs to demonstrate the principle, Scholl (2005 p 46). In this experiment, a photograph of a set of six craters or hilltops is identified as convex if seen from one direction and concave if viewed from 180 degrees to the first direction. This demonstrates a possible response to the direction from which the scene is lit. Both responses place the light above, not below the scene.


Information is stored in long term memory in knowledge structures of varying complexity called ‘Schemata’. These are maps of knowledge and are first incorporated in small chunks and simple concepts. As a learner becomes more familiar with a domain, their schemata integrate, increase and include relationships. A single schema in a novice’s mind could be equivalent to a single option in a developed expert schema for a whole process or domain, Bruning et al. (2004), Sweller (2003). For example, double declutching to change gear on a crash gear box was once a four step process while learning to drive. Now, for experienced drivers, it is a smooth, unconscious element of driving, usually confined to steep hills and sharp bends.

Schema theory also postulates that schemata are developed for retrieving information from long term memory, Ericsson and Kintsch (1995), using reading comprehension as a test. As knowledge structures, schemata can contain any information, be it fact, process or unsubstantiated rumour.

Features of schemata include the capacity to store information in long term memory, to represent the information in different levels of complexity, to relate to other schemata containing information, to form hierarchies of classification of that information and to represent relationships between members of classes and classes of information. Thus, a single schema for a new topic may have one element of information in it and a complex schema may include multiple relationships to other schemata to represent a complex concept. Information can be held conceptually, in language and, or in images, Bruning et al. (2004). Schemata are also subject to revision in light of subsequent learning or internal review and understanding. For the purposes of this essay, the most important feature of schemata is the ability to create more of them and to relate relevant concepts as expertise develops.

Schema Construction and Automation and Learning

Schema construction and automation is the goal of learning. The evidence that learning has taken place is the quality and relevance of the topic specific output retrieved from long term memory via working memory after the learning activity has ceased. Schema automation is a feature of schemata if and only if sufficient information has been stored in long term memory in schemata as a result of learning and there has been sufficient purposeful practice to automate the task. The more advanced a learner becomes, the more schemata they have for that topic. Therefore they can hold more knowledge in working memory while learning additional units of content and elements of relationship, Sweller (2003).

When someone learns to drive, initially there is too much information to hold in working memory at once. Steering, changing gear, reading the road conditions, judging distance, judging speed, using the brakes and accelerator and using the rear view mirror are all separate units of knowledge. These do not exist in isolation so the elements of relationship between them also take up working memory. There could be more than 64 elements and units in this list alone, derived from eight units and their relationships. Some driving instructors use private space for the first lesson, to reduce the load so the learner can concentrate on controlling the vehicle before going on the road.

In contrast, an experienced driver can do all of the above while conversing with a passenger, changing the radio station, opening a window, tracking for police cars and navigating to their destination. They have had practice in using the skills they learned so the schemata for driving become complex, related and automated. This process is built into skill acquisition in Australia with provisional licensing of newly qualified drivers for two years. In flying, the different grades of license are obtained by a combination of demonstrated skill and hours of flying time. Ericsson (2005) identifies 10,000 hours or ten years of directed practice to reach expert status in a domain.

Schema construction has to occur before schemata can automate, Sweller (2003). For example, a child has to learn to co-ordinate their hand, arm and body for writing before they can make fine writing moves. They also have to learn to recognise and construct letters in their alphabet before they can write them knowingly. To avoid the requirement for non-existent prior knowledge, children are given exercises called ‘Writing Patterns’, which they copy between double lines. First, they use widely spaced lines and as their co-ordination improves, the lines are placed closer together. The patterns are not related to specific letters, simply copied with as much accuracy as possible. One system which has been commonly used in England is the set of writing patterns and related material developed by Marion Richardson, now out of print.

During the same time frame that a child uses writing patterns in one lesson, they learn to read and print letters in other lessons. Then, when the child is fluent in using writing patterns and can print in upper and lower case, they can apply the patterns to the written word and learn to use joined writing.

Learning in the early stages of any skill or topic is necessarily slower than more advanced work due to the need to construct schemata to supplement the initial seven plus or minus two chunks of combined information and relata. The act of constructing schemata enables a student to solve similar problems to those used in the learning context, but not to transfer that ability to new or unrecognised problems. This only occurs when schemata have automated sufficiently to enable a student to bring sufficient attention to new situations without overloading working memory, Baddeley (1992).

Evolution of Human Cognitive Architecture

In the context of the Theory of Evolution, at first glance, this pattern of learning might seem counter intuitive. A human starting out with minimal schemata appears to be at risk of making fatal errors before they can learn enough to survive, let alone reproduce. However, as they are cared for during their formative years until they reach physical maturity, there is time to experience their environment for long enough to acquire a basic set of schemata and automate them. The humans who survive to adulthood know friend from stranger and kin from other, prey from predator and other relevant matters, Tooby, Cosmides and Barrett (2005).

When a human encounters an unknown situation, they use means to an end analysis to solve problems. This uses all their seven plus or minus two chunk capacity in working memory on two or three options and their relationships. If the human picks an option that works, they survive and learn more. If the human had the capacity to consider five or six options and their relationships with no prior knowledge, they could take too long to decide anything and be eaten.

An initial working memory capacity greater than seven plus or minus two, including relationships, would allow for untested learning on a scale that militates against survival, Sweller (2003). Not only would the human consider for too long, but also they could learn untried material that undermined functional schemata they had already. This would also militate against survival.

Evolutionary change is incremental, Sweller (2003). A single genetic mutation can occur in one human. If it is non-viable, that human’s fitness is reduced and the mutation is self limiting. If a mutation is viable, it is passed on to the human’s offspring. If the mutation enhances fitness, it will enter the gene pool more rapidly than one that is merely viable, due to the increased number and fitness of offspring and their descendants. Over a period of many generations in a stable environment, the gene pool becomes fitter for that environment. If the environment changes, the criteria for fitness change and those populations with the capacity to adapt to the new environment survive by learning how to live in it.

Similarity in Principles of Evolutionary Change and Learning

Learning can be compared with evolution, Sweller (2003), Van Merrienboer and Sweller, (2005). Although evolutionary changes are genetic and refer to a population through millions of years and schema construction and automation is conceptual and refers to an individual over a few years, there is a pattern of conservation in the existing state for both. The slow dissemination of fitness enhancing mutations compared with the size of the human genome protects the existing genome from radical change. The small capacity of working memory for new information and relationships protects the existing knowledge in long term memory from radical reorganisation with untried and possibly damaging material, Sweller, (2003).

The organisation of long term memory is protected from loss of fitness from learning non-functional new information and by the time sufficient schemata have been constructed to enable advanced learning to occur, the human has sufficient knowledge to be aware of the possible value of additional knowledge and to use informed judgement to handle it safely. At this stage, problem solving in the domain uses domain specific knowledge and promotes fitness instead of relying on means to an end analysis.

With learning placed in a context of evolution and the Modal Model of memory and research findings on differences in working memory capacity for new and developed learning, Sweller (2003) had the framework in which to develop a theory of learning on empirical grounds. This is the Cognitive Load Theory of learning, which uses the capacity of working memory at different stages to inform the design of learning sessions and materials, Sweller (2003).

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory states that effective learning can only take place where the cognitive capacity of an individual student in a particular domain is not exceeded. If the cognitive load of a lesson has too many units and elements for that learner at their stage of knowledge, working memory cannot hold the load for long enough to transfer it to long term memory. Then schemata are not constructed and learning does not occur.

Cognitive load includes units of knowledge and elements of relationship. Element interactivity occurs between units and their relationship. Together, these create the cognitive load of a learning task, Sweller (2003). If the element activity of knowledge units and their relata exceeds seven plus or minus two chunks, then new learning does not take place. Sweller and Chandler (1994), actually cite two to three knowledge units as maximum in this context, as the rest of the load comprises elements of interactive relata.

Cognitive Load and Learning

From this information it follows that basic instruction needs to be clear, simple and specific. Rote learning may have a function to facilitate basic schema contruction to enable more relata further into the program. The first lesson in touch typing introduces the ‘Home Keys’ (asdf jkl;) and their function as the place to return to and triangulate from, when using other keys. Many F’s and J’s have a raised dot on their keys to facilitate identification by touch. This approach is framed for students so they can accept being unable to produce text immediately.

Cognitive Load Theory enables course designers to increase cognitive load as students progress through the program. The amount of element interactivity between units of knowledge, combined with the units themselves, equals the cognitive load of a lesson. If the cognitive load is greater than the capacity of a student’s working memory for that lesson content, the lesson will not be learned. As small, specific schemata are constructed from the building blocks, they become available to contribute to handling an increased cognitive load in subsequent lessons, Sweller (2005).

Touch typing progresses by learning two additional keys at a time with reference to the home keys. Only when all keys have been learned and practiced with correct fingering at low speed does typing real text begin with this exercise: The quick, brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Worked Examples and Problem Completion, Van Merrienboer and Sweller (2005)

Constructed schemata enable a student to solve relevant problems, but to learn to solve these problems, students need schemata. To develop more comprehensive schemata than single, rote learned items, relata need to be learned and worked examples of problems can assist with this. An effective way to use these, in keeping with Cognitive Load Theory, is to guide students through up to 10 different examples worked all the way through. Then students can work the last line of another set of worked examples and progress to the last two lines, gradually working backwards until they can work whole problems of the same class of problems by themselves. This applies to algebra, English grammar tasks, foreign language tasks, the investment method of valuation and any other problem solving elements of learning. Many classical music students learn new pieces backwards in phrases from the end in this manner. With each new phrase, they play onwards to the end, thus increasing familiarity with the parts they have learned already. They find it assists them to memorise the whole piece for performance. If they can remember the opening phrase, the rest is familiar.

The Expertise Reversal Effect

For advanced learners, worked examples may be detrimental. When a student has automated schemata, or at least well developed schemata for a particular task, following a set of instructions which is different from their own understanding, can reduce their effectiveness. Automated schemata run so fast and contain such comprehensive relata that sudden exposure to a different method for solving the problem can slow the process and reduce their accuracy. This is the ‘Expertise Reversal Effect’, Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler and Sweller (2003), which can manifest with advanced students when not enough knowledge is presupposed in a lesson or too much instruction is given.

Three post-graduate classes used different criteria for setting written work. One offered minimal guidance and required students to produce,  two research essays of a given length each. No more information was forthcoming. One gave a topic and two papers to get the students started and one gave a title and detailed plan for use as an option. Retrospectively, the majority of students preferred the second approach. Prospectively they had thought the detailed plan would help, but in practice, some found it elicited the expertise reversal effect. None of the students had ever been presented with a detailed plan before, but agreed that it would have been particularly helpful at school or as a first year undergraduate.

Having matched the amount of guidance to the knowledge level of particular students and the amount of information to the capacities of their working memories, course designers can create programs with increasing cognitive load to fit the changing requirements of students. However, the quality of their instruction is as important as the sequence and amount of information given. Poor instruction can increase cognitive load even for individual knowledge units, Sweller, Van Merrienboer, J and F Paas (1998).

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Every knowledge unit has an intrinsic cognitive load. This is the load imposed by learning a unit and its relata. While it can be reduced to rote components initially, it still has a minimum, irreducible cognitive load, Van Merrienboer and Sweller (2005).

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Instruction imposes additional cognitive load, some of which can be extraneous to the process. Unnecessary detail, insufficient instruction, inappropriate orders of delivery and poor use of audio-visual aids can all contribute to extraneous cognitive load, Van Merrienboer and Sweller (2005). For example, there is a split-attention effect, Chandler and Sweller (1992), which occurs when cross-referencing sources from different places. If a diagram is on one page and its explanatory text is on another, cognitive load is increased by having to remember the content of one page while consulting the other. Reading from slides also splits attention, as does looking up data from tables while reading a text. This is called the Modality Effect, Van Merrienboer and Sweller (2005) and can be excluded from learning materials by providing materials with all required information in one place or split between different sensory systems for simultaneous delivery. When using the Modality Effect it is important to avoid redundant presentation of identical,  material in different locations, Van Merrienboer and Sweller (2005).

Germane Cognitive Load

Germane cognitive load is created by activities especially designed to create schema construction, Sweller, Van Merrienboer, J and F Paas (1998). Worked examples at the appropriate stage impose germane cognitive load. Typing practice of real text and business letters produces fluency, schema automation, and speed by imposing germane cognitive load. The key is creating relevant learning activities.

Cognitive Load and Course Design

The possibilities of cognitive load theory for influencing course design and teacher training are far reaching. Learning has become big business and ineffective ideologies with no empirical backing are used routinely as frameworks for course design and delivery. The Discovery Model of Experiential Learning requires extensive background knowledge for problem solving to be effective, yet it is used commonly for students with little or no domain specific knowledge. It has already been established that problem solving by means to an end requires enough extraneous cognitive load to disable effective learning. Instructional guidance is particularly necessary for beginners to reduce cognitive load to an acceptable level, Sweller (1999). Shared projects may require communication between students, but in the absence of sufficient guidance, they may learn mistakes from each other. Also, in any shared project there is room for individual members to avoid learning some or all of the material themselves, as someone else will cover it.

The most effective approach to course design is to ascertain the level of prior knowledge of students, start with minimal new information where the subject is new, give clear, accurate instruction and provide sources in a manner that concentrates visual attention in one place while explaining the visuals verbally, and not asking the students to read at the same time as they see visual aids and hear the explanation.

Where there is prior knowledge, refer to it and include it to aid recalling existing relevant schemata and use worked examples with incremental student participation. Move to less guidance with advancement until advanced learners have minimal guidance but directed practice. At this stage the intention is to elicit schemata automation to enable transfer of the knowledge to other contexts of problem solving, Sweller (1999).


Cognitive Load Theory provides an effective framework for designing and delivering course work to learners of any standard. It is backed by empirical research supporting different amounts and types of instruction according to the level,  of learners and it enables teachers to provide well crafted guidance in their subjects. As the only learning theory currently demonstrating academic credibility, it can be offered to teaching organisations in any context. While the credentials of Cognitive Load Theory should make it attractive in the training environment, there is some resistance from adherents to the fashionable ideologies of the time, they are accustomed to defending their causes in the absence of evidence by research.


Atkinson, R.C., Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). Human Memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K.W. & Spence, J.T. (Eds), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, New York: Academic Press

Atkinson, R.C., Shiffrin, R.M. (1971). The Control of Short Term Memory, Scientific American, 225(2). 82-90.

Anderson, J.R., Matessa, M. (1997). A Production System Theory of Serial Memory. Psychological Review, 104. 728-748

Baddeley, A.D. (1968). How does acoustic similarity influence short-term memory? Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 20, 249-264.

Baddeley, A.D., Hitch, G.J. (1974). Working Memory. In Bower, G.H. (ed.), Recent Advances in Learning and Motivation (Volume 8), New York: Academic Press.

Baddeley, A.D. (1992). Working Memory. Science, Vol 255. 556-559.

Baddeley, A.D. (2001). Is Working Memory Still Working? American Psychologist, 56, 849-864.

Bartlett, F. (1932) Remembering, A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, London. Cambridge University Press.

Bruning, R.H., Shraw, G.J., Norby, M.N. Ronning, R.R. (2004). Cognitive Psychology and Instruction. 8. Ch. 2, Sensory, Short Term and Working Memory pp 14-35 and Ch. 3, Long Term Memory: Structures and Models. 36-64. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Merrill/ Prentice Hall, c2004.

Chandler, P., Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction. Cognition and Instruction. 8. 293-332.

Chandler, P., Sweller, J. (1992). The Split Attention Effect as a Factor in the Design of Instruction. British Journal of Education Psychology, 62. 233-246.

Darwin, C.J., Turvey, M.T., Crowder, R.G. (1972). An Auditory Analogue of the Sperling Partial Report Procedure: Evidence for Brief Auditory Store. Cognitive Psychology, 3:255-267.

Ericsson, K.A., Kintsch, W. (1995). Long Term Working Memory. Psychological Review, 102(2). 211-245.
James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.

Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P. Sweller, J. (2003). The Expertise Reversal Effect. Educational Psychologist. 38. 23-31.

Maudsley, H. (1876). The Physiology of Mind. London: MacMillan.

McClelland, J.L. (1995). A Connectionist Perspective on Knowledge and Development. In T.J. Simon & G.S. Halford (Eds.), Developing Cognitive Competence: New Approaches to Process Modeling. 157-204. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

McClelland, J.L., McNaughton, B.L., & O’Reilly, R.C. (1995). Why there are Complementary Learning Systms in the Hippocampus and Neocortex: Insights from the Successes and Failures of Connectionist Models of Learning and Memory. Psychological Review, 102, 419-457.

McClelland, J.L., Rogers, T.T. (2003). The Parallel Distributed Processing Approach to Semantic Cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, 310-322.

Miller, G.A., (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review, 63. 81-97.

Newell, A., Simon, H.A. (1972). Human Problem Solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Scholl, B.J. (2005). Innateness and (Bayesian) Visual Perception. In Carruthers, P., Laurence, S., Stitch, S. (Ed.) The Innate Mind. 305-337. New York, Oxford University Press.

Smith, D.J. (2001),

Sperling, G. (1960), The Information Available in Brief Visual Presentations. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 74, (11, Whole No. 498).

Sweller, J., Van Merrienboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design, Educational Psychology Review. 10 (3), 257-287.

Sweller, J. (1999). Instructional Design in Technical Areas. Camberwell, Victoria. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Sweller, J. (2003). Evolution of Human Cognitive Architecture. In Ross, B. (Ed.) The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol 43, Academic Press, San Diego, pp 215-266.

Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Barrett, H.C. (2005). Resolving the Debate on Innate Ideas: Learnability Constraints and the Evolved Interpretation of Motivational and Conceptual Functions. In Carruthers, P., Laurence, S., Stitch, S. (Ed.) The Innate Mind, pp 305-337. New York, Oxford University Press.

Van Merrienboer, J., Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive Load Theory and Complex Learning: Recent Developments and Future Directions. Educational Psychology Review. 17 (2) 147-177.

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful hit the share button!

Mirror Neurons: The neuro-Psychology of NLP Modelling

Psychological Research Supporting Elements of NLP

Traditional Psychology and Cognitive Science research in various fields, such as learning and memory, attention, cognitive load, psycholinguistics, neural networks and neuroscience, call attention to many concepts relevant to offering support and further insight into underlying principles, processes and assumptions which form the core of NLP modelling and applications. We explore these links in detail.

Mirror Neurons: The Neuropsychology of NLP Modelling

by Richard Thompson and Chris Collingwood

NLP is a modelling technology, the purpose of which is to attend to, describe and transfer models of excellence. The process of NLP modelling has been described as the “core activity of NLP by Bostic St. Clair and Grinder and as such is the most important activity in the development of the field of NLP”. The finding of mirror neurons has been hailed as the single most important unpublicised story of the decade by world-renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran (2000), who believes that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.” Here we review the links between this important finding and NLP.

  • Mirror Neurons: Scientists claim to have recently isolated the neural substrates of imitation and modelling in the brain, showing evidence from brain-based research that humans are natural-born imitators.
  • Modelling: The process of NLP modelling, when done correctly, duplicates the process of natural learning, and new research reveals that the brain is capable of laying down new motor skills through observation.
  • Difficulties in Modelling: New Code NLP emphasises the importance of a high-performance mental state during the process of modelling, and significant research illustrates the importance of one key element in particular (the absence of internal dialogue) in the development of such a modelling state.
  • From Motor to Cognitive Modelling: In addition to learning physical skills, modelling enables the uptake of new cognitive strategies and processes. Physiological and psychological evidence suggests how such a process can occur.
  • Summary and References: Analysing academic resources reveals intriguing overlaps between experiential discoveries within NLP and experimentally-confirmed hypotheses within the field of neuropsychology. Investigating the neural substrates of NLP processes allows us an additional perspective from which to examine the claims of NLP.

[bctt tweet=”NLP is a modelling technology, the purpose of which is to attend to, describe and transfer models of excellence”]

NLP and Mirror Neurons

The discipline of NLP has grown tremendously over the last twenty-five years with the popularisation of its applications through books, seminars and the occasional guru (for example, Anthony Robbins). Irrelevantly to its popularity yet significantly to the technology is its grounding in rigorous evidence from the cognitive sciences. One of the co-creators Grinder, a linguist, abducted knowledge from the world of linguistic across into NLP. For example in linguistics language is considered, and there is considerable evidence supporting this, to be rule governed. Bostic St Clair and Grinder (2001) strongly suggest that patterns of human excellence are rule governed.,  So creating models which elucidate the patterns of human excellence is at the core of the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

In Neuro-Linguistic Programming we have a distinctive type of modelling called NLP modelling whose function is the creation of models of human excellence. Grinder and Bostic St Clair (2001, p.271) define NLP modelling as “the mapping of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge”.

[bctt tweet=”NLP Modelling is about creating models of human excellence”]

A growing body of research is moving into investigating this area, which, in the NLP community has been widely acknowledged, accepted and discussed for years: the capacity of humans to learn by imitation.

Surprising new findings in this area indicate that in order for people to be such good imitative learners, certain areas of neurons in the brain have developed which translate from the visual perception of another’s actions into a simulation of those same actions inside the circuits in the brain that we use for our own movement (i.e. the motor and premotor cortices; see figure below). The most important implication of this finding is that we now have empirical evidence showing that people, at the most basic neural levels, are modelling others, learning from their behaviour by directly simulating them in their minds. As Ramachandran (2000) has said, “It’s as if anytime you want to make a judgment about someone else’s movements you have to run a VR (virtual reality) simulation of the corresponding movements in your own brain and without mirror neurons you cannot do this.”

The primary motor and premotor cortices exist to execute physical, bodily actions. Recent evidence suggests that they are also used to directly simulate another person’s (or animal’s) observed actions. Image from “The Brain from Top to Bottom” online brain encyclopedia.

The specific sets of neurons responsible for this in the brain are known as ‘mirror neurons’, and were first discovered in monkeys (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996).,  Mirror neurons are now known to exist in humans, in much more complex configurations and with more highly sophisticated capacities (Fadiga, Fogassi, Pavesi, & Rizzolatti, 1995, Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004).

The key important functional element of these mirror neurons is that they become active both when a person makes a particular action (for example, when grasping an object) and when he observes another individual performing a similar action.,  Thus, as Giacomo Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese (2001) explain, the brain has a neural mechanism that allows a direct matching between the visual description of an action and its execution.,  The brain is hard-wired, by nature, to translate the results of a visual analysis directly into action and to interpreting the visual world with our own motor circuitry.

Intriguingly, while the mirror neurons in monkeys do not respond when actions are not explicitly goal-oriented, human mirror neuron networks are stimulated in response to actions which are apparently meaningless, indicating a tendency to spontaneously model any and all movements by others (Giacomo Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2001).

Humans as Natural Modellers

These fascinating findings of course provide support for the idea that humans are natural modellers – we model the physiology of another person in the very parts of our motor cortex which control our own physiology, and this is an automatic, natural process. The parallels between these findings and the core NLP process of modelling is immediately obvious.

In fact, very recent investigations into the capacities of mirror neurons reveal the surprising influence they have on new behavioural learning (Stefan et al., 2005). This research shows that the brain actually lays down memories of movements and actions observed by another as though the person themselves has performed them.,  The striking implications of this is that simply observing another individual performing some activity can create new memory traces and learning, adding to our behavioural repertoire before even taking physical action ourselves. The new ‘memory’ traces can then support and enhance learning. Katja Stefan and colleagues recently (2005) have collected data that raises “the intriguing possibility that observational practice may improve motor performance by mechanisms similar to those involved in motor skill acquisition by physical training.”

“Research shows mirror neurons have a surprising influence on new behavioural learning”

The memories that are laid down through this intriguing process are not simply constrained to an isolated existence within the brain, either. Multiple experiments have shown that this type of knowledge is readily accessible in a people’s physiology.,  Fadiga et. al. (1995) found that the observation of certain movements enhanced measurable muscular signals generated from artificially stimulating a person’s motor cortex (using transcranial magnetic stimulation).,  Rizzolatti & Craighero (2004) also review evidence showing that people’s ability to perform an action is significantly improved when they have watched someone performing that action. Thus, observation directly improves muscle performance via mirror neurons.

These capacities are exploited to their fullest n the process of NLP modelling, a methodology consisting of a series of processes for assimilating, reproducing, describing (coding) and transferring human capability. It consists of a five stage process.

The first phase is identifying an appropriate exemplar as the model of excellence. In phase two the modeller takes an unconscious uptake of patterns demonstrated by the model (this phase ties in with the findings on mirror neurons) avoiding conscious understanding at this stage. Phase three is an evaluative phase based on feedback gained from demonstrating the modelled patterns in the appropriate context. Phase four occurs when the modeller achieves criterion that is, he or she can reproduce the skill in the same context with the same outcomes in the same time frames as the model of excellence. At this stage in the modelling process the modeller sorts his or her behaviour keeping behaviours that are relevant and discarding those that are idiosyncratic and not essential to the skill being modelled. Phase five is the explicit coding stage where the constituent patterns of he model are coded (described) in a suitable form for transfer to others. The final phase is actual transfer of the skill to others with testing and modification of the model as necessary.

Difficulties in Modelling

We know that children are fantastic imitative learners, display frequent and overt imitative behaviours and learn new motor and verbal skills very quickly (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977, Meltzoff & Prinz, 2002). In most adults this imitative ability often seems to fade as we age. NLP explains this phenomena as resulting from an over-emphasis on internal dialogue and what Grinder calls linguistic filters, in contexts where those capacities become hindrances.

Recent empirical evidence supports NLP’s explanation for this difficulty in learning, and that direct modelling is an example of a context where internal dialogue hinders learning. Phase 2 of modelling – the disengagement of conscious (linguistic) filters and the unconscious uptake (implicit learning) of the demonstrated patterns – are the stages that explicitly involve mirror neuron circuitry. In phase 3 we also avoid linguistic filtering and attend to sensory experience (without conscious understanding) as a way of ‘bedding in’ the neural patterning that have already been laid down in the ‘unconscious uptake’ phase. This disengagement of linguistic filtering is key to the process of modelling, and the importance of this has found support recently in research by Stefan et al. (2005), who found that engaging the motor system in an unrelated task impaired learning which involves mirror-neuron systems.

It is well understood within the field of NLP that in order to learn with maximal effectiveness (i.e. to model a skill), it is imperative for the learner to engage a specifically-designed ‘modelling state’, characterised by open peripheral vision and an absence of internal dialogue.

As an analogue to this knowledge, originally discovered experientially by Bandler and Grinder, recent evidence from experiments into cognitive processing reveal that subvocalization strongly involves motor processing, which, thanks to Stefan and colleagues, we know impairs mirror-neuron-based learning.,  Aleman & Wout (2004) found that performance on an auditory-verbal imagery task was significantly affected by concurrent articulatory suppression, equally as much as by concurrent finger tapping, illustrating that subvocalization – a habitual and persistent behaviour in the majority of adults – essentially represents a distracting motor activity, severely impairing neural learning through mirror neurons.

Thus, we find support for the known importance of a state absent of subvocalisation, a motor behaviour which distracts and impairs learning through direct simulation and modelling capacities of mirror neurons.

In accordance with New-Code principles and Bostic St. Clair and Grinder’s specification of the process of modelling (2001), the mirror neuron system is able to operate primarily independently of conscious cognition, according to Stefan et al. (2005), who also noted that while motor distraction impaired learning, the beneficial effect of previous observation was uncompromised when conscious attentional systems were otherwise engaged and distracted.

Thus the only requirement for modelling is the development and maintenance of a ‘know-nothing state’ (Bostic St. Clair & Grinder, 2001) and exposure to a model whose skills are deemed to be worthy of absorbing.

From Motor to Cognitive Modelling

This natural process which takes place within every person’s brain is useful in modelling someone’s cognitive capacities as well as their physical capacities. So as well as being useful in sports and coaching, it can also be used for understanding how someone thinks about and acts in a given situation and for duplicating their cognitive capacities.

According to the ‘chain of excellence’ (Bostic St. Clair & Grinder, 2001), physiological state has influence over mental state, and mental state has influence over specific behaviours. Humans’ innate ability to modify our own behaviour through modelling another’s physiology (directly in the brain networks which control our own physiology), must result in a corresponding modification of state and thereby, behaviour.

The chain of excellence has implicit support from the mirror-neuron research as well. Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, according to a New York Times article, has said that “mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation.” Dr. Christian Keysers (commenting on his studies of the neural bases of empathy published in the journal Neuron) has said that the ability to share the emotions of others appears to be intimately linked to the functioning of mirror neurons. Iacoboni (in press) has also made similar links between mirror neurons, imitation and the capacity to feel empathy for others. The implications here are, of course, that through observing and implicitly and unconsciously matching another person’s physiology through your mirror neurons, that the same mental states will emerge.

An interesting parallel, which suggests the same conclusion, is drawn by Rizzolatti et. al. (2001) in their observations of patients with moebius syndrome, who are congenitally incapable of moving their facial muscles and perhaps consistently seem to have difficulties in appreciating emotions conveyed by the faces of others.

The final link between mental state and behaviour is provided in studies of state-dependent learning, as an example of the influence mental state has upon a particular behaviour; in this case, learning and remembering. Overton (1964) and many others have demonstrated that learning which takes place under specific physiological conditions, whether caused by drug administration or emotional experiences, will have a higher probability of being recalled when the initial physiological state that learning initially occurred under is present.,  That is, state has influence over behaviour.

Conclusion and References

Through the process of modeling (provided that the correct state has been engaged), we have the capacity to utilize natural and innate learning capacities to absorb patterns of physiology, states and behaviours of excellence.,  Recent empirical evidence provides strong evidence that this is the case, and it is hoped that further research will provide further support for this and other core NLP concepts.

If you are looking to investigate NLP further, please contact us. If you are interested in investigating the possibilities for your own development through the processes of modeling or learning NLP and attaining an accredited qualification in NLP which provides depth and breadth of knowledge and skills, you are the ideal candidate for the Graduate Certificate in NLP.

The development and maintenance of a ‘know-nothing state’ and exposure to models of excellence is one of the primary concentrations of our Graduate Certificate, Part 2.


Aleman, A., & Wout, M. (2004). Subvocalization in auditory-verbal imagery: just a form of motor imagery? Cognitive Processing, 5(4), 228-231.

Bostic St. Clair, C., & Grinder, J. (2001). Whispering In The Wind. Scotts Valley, California 950666: J & C Enterprises.

Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Pavesi, G., & Rizzolatti, G. (1995). Motor facilitation during action observation: a magnetic simulation study. Journal of Neurophysiology, 73(6), 2608-2611.

Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain, 119, 593-609.

Iacoboni, M. (in press). Understanding others: imitation, language, empathy. In S. Hurley & N. Chater (Eds.), Perspectives on imitation: from cognitive neuroscience to social science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, M. K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198(4312), 75-78.

Meltzoff, A. N., & Prinz, W. (2002). The Imitative mind: Development, Evolution and Brain Bases. In A. N. Meltzoff & W. Prinz (Eds.), The Imitative Mind (pp. 19-41). Cambridge: University press.

Overton, D. A. (1964). State-dependent or “dissociated” learning produced with pentobarbital. J Comp Physiol Psychol, 57, 3-12.

Ramachandran, V. S. (2000). Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution. Edge.

Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169-192.

Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., & Gallese, V. (2001). Neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the understanding and imitation of action. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 661-669.

Stefan, K., Cohen, L. G., Duque, J., Mazzocchio, R., Celnik, P., Sawaki, L., et al. (2005). Formation of a motor memory by action observation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25(41), 9339-9346

About the Authors

Richard Thompson, BSc. (Cognitive Science), is a Graduate of Exeter University, and is a freelance writer and web consultant. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP and enjoys receiving responses to his work.

Christopher Collingwood, BA (Psych)., MAppSci Social Ecology, a director of Inspiritive Pty Ltd., has over 21 years experience in coaching, consulting and leading seminars in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP, is an NLP Trainer Assessor, and has undertaken extensive training with the major developers of NLP, including Dr. John Grinder, co-originator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Inspiritive is a registered trademark of Inspiritive Pty Ltd

Article content copyright 2006 of respective authors. Richard Thompson & Chris Collingwood. All rights reserved.

All other material copyright 2006. Inspiritive Pty Ltd. All rights reserved

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful hit the share button

NLP Methodology for Creating Models

NLP Methodology and Modelling, Psychology and Cognitive Science

NLP is a field of endeavour whose primary purpose is to create models of human excellence. It is, at its core, an epistemology and a methodology for creating models of how we know what we know, and how those who excel are able to perform with excellence in attaining clear and measurable outcomes. NLP is made up of a number of different models, which are results of a process known as NLP modelling.

Psychology and Cognitive Science are long-established epistemological endeavours, whose aims are to build models of human psychological functioning and attempt to prove or disprove their validity and usefulness as metaphors through empirical analyses and to determine when such models break down and how far they can be used as interpretive guides to how the human system really works. Being aware that it is the methodologies of those fields as opposed to the efficacy of any one of their component models or disciplines which defines them and forms a framework for all their undertakings.

The process of creating models and maps of the world explicitly engage the presupposition that the map is not the territory; our models of the world are not the world itself, but to the extent that they are useful in achieving outcomes, they are helpful and worthwhile, as is any endeavour which endeavours to create such maps. Science as a whole is one such field.

Models and Maps of the World

All models have theoretical presuppositions, consequences and predict specific outcomes, which can be tested for validity through experimentation. Cognitive Science uses computational models to create working formats of models, which force explicit descriptions of the contexts, processes, structures and variables for which the model is appropriate. NLP uses formats and outcomes, and to the extent to which the presuppositions inherent in any given model are kept intact, and applied with methodological credibility, the models are amenable to experimentation. To assist in scientific investigation, models must be clearly specified and their presuppositions must be identified so that they may be explored experimentally.

Thus, NLP should be tested using the same scientific rigor as any other discipline which involves the creation and exploration of models, and for this to take place it is important, as noted by Einspruch & Forman (1985), that “researchers should be adequately trained in NLP so that the procedures and interventions generated can be used within the presuppositions contained in the model.” Scientific investigation has and will continue to assist in creating a clearer specification of the models of NLP through the analytic process.

As Sharpley (1987) has observed, “failure to produce data that support a particular theory from controlled studies does relegate that theory to questionable status in terms of professional accountability.” Once this occurs, a model must be refined or corrected, new models proposed, hypotheses and predictions made and experiments performed which allow the development of new models.

This is, in essence, the process of science, and any field of endeavour which attempts to create useful maps of the world.

It is very important for the NLP community as a whole that people become aware of the principles it shares with fields of research such as Cognitive Science and Psychology. However, this has not always been recognised in the experimental literature; various researchers (for example, Sharpley, 1987) have mistaken some of the models within NLP for the discipline of NLP as a whole, assuming innacurately that the entire credibility of NLP as a whole lies on the shoulders of one of its models (e.g. the representational systems model) Just as the credibility of psychology does not rest on the efficacy of any one model (e.g. Baddeley & Hitch’s, 1974, model of working memory), so it is with NLP.

Future Directions

Unfortunately, until now, there has not been a single standard methodology within the field of NLP. Thus there have been no controls on the method for introducing new models, nor has there been an agreement on precise specifications of the models of NLP. With the Graduate Certificate in NLP and Grinder and Bostic-St. Clair’s book Whispering in the Wind, Inspiritive is assisting in creating a centralised community of NLP practitioners, trainers and developers who can collaborate in the study of and development of models of excellence.

In addition, there have not been clear guidelines for experimental methodology, or clear specifications of the formats and processes of NLP. On this website, we provide such methodological guidelines, and The NLP Field Guide is the most comprehensive listing of NLP patterns and processes currently available to the NLP community.


Baddeley, A.D., Hitch, G.J. (1974). Working Memory, In G.A. Bower (Ed.), Recent advances in learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47-90), New York: Academic Press.

Bostic St. Clair, C., & Grinder, J. (2001). Whispering In The Wind. Scotts Valley, California 950666: J & C Enterprises.

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

About the Author

Richard Thompson, BSc. (Cognitive Science)., Grad Cert NLP., is a Graduate of Exeter University, and is a freelance writer and web consultant. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP and enjoys receiving responses to his work.

Article content copyright © 2006. Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

All other material copyright © 2006. INSPIRITIVE Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

If you found this article useful hit the share button!

Experimental Methodology in NLP Research


Einspruch & Forman (1985) criticised 29 research studies on the basis of 6 methodological errors, concluding that a large amount of psychological research into NLP concepts was invalid because of errors and oversights in experimental design which compromised its scientific credibility. Sharpley (1987) rightly questioned the validity of some of these methodological objection on the grounds that they unnecessarily discounted a large number of potentially valuable results. He maintained that even when factoring in methodological errors, significant results had been attained by the research.

However, an analysis of the literature reviews and the studies to which they refer does reveal some consistent oversights of certain distinctions that are vital for scientific enquiry into NLP to succeed. While these distinctions are already available to well trained NLP graduates (given that they are core patterns presupposed in many applications of NLP), they will be explained in detail here because of their frequent occurrence in experimental research into NLP. The importance of integrating this knowledge into future design methodologies in NLP research cannot be overemphasised.

The most important methodological issues raised by Einspruch & Forman can be grouped into three patterns, all based on the associative nature of the human nervous system. This basic pattern of human functioning provides important insights into the significance of context in experimental studies and in theoretical considerations.

Pattern #1: Humans Are Influenced by Associations

Psychological Underpinnings

The basic psychological understanding of association was famously illustrated by Pavlov (1927) in his classic experiments with ringing bells and salivating dogs, where he trained the dogs by consistently preceded their feeding time with auditory stimuli such as bells and tuning forks. After a training period he then reproduced the stimuli in the absence of the food and found that in itself, the auditory stimuli was enough to make the dogs salivate by virtue of the learned association. Associative learning has been explored in detail by thousands of psychological researchers, but the lessons learned from our in-depth explorations have occasionally been overlooked.

NLP Research

Einspruch & Forman draw attention to one example in particular. Dorn (1983) attempted to determine participants’ PRS by using three different methods of assessment. One method involved participants selecting their preferred predicate from each of 18 sets of three words; one visual, one auditory, one kinaesthetic; assuming that selecting one out of three words would be done on the basis of a preferred representational system, as opposed to having its own specific associations which influence choice of one word over others in the triad.

Pattern #2: Humans Function Within, and Are Influenced by, Context

Psychological Underpinnings

This pattern corresponds to basic experimental design considerations. It has been a long-understood concept that similarity between the test context and acquisition context is an important factor in memory experiments. It is also well known that “elements of the training context (i.e., background cues) may act as conditioned stimuli during a test trial” (Miller & Schachtman, 1985). These observations draw on associative processes such as classical conditioning (e.g. Rescorla & Wagner, 1972). Even at the time of Pavlov and his contemporaries, it was widely recognised and understood that, “despite the experimenter’s best efforts to make the subject attend exclusively to the nominal controlling stimuli, the test context [influences] behaviour through direct associations between it and any reinforcers that [have] previously been presented” (Miller & Schachtman, 1985).

What is clear in the psychological literature is that the confounding and influential effects of context significantly affect processing across the spectrum of human cognition; over such wide ranging topics as learning, memory and recall, language interpretation, problem solving and perception (see Balsam & Tomie, 1985, for detailed reviews of the impact of context in these areas of cognition).

The impact of context is illustrated by a classic example of context-dependent memory; that the processing of memories is heavily influenced by the context within which learning and recall take place. Baddeley and Godden (1975) tested the memory of participants in two different environments: underwater and on land. When words were recalled on land, participants recalled correctly 37% of words learned on land, compared with 23% learned underwater. When words were recalled underwater. participants recalled 24% of words learned on land compared with 32% learned underwater. Endel Tulving (considered by many to be the father of learning and memory experimentation in psychology), in 1983, formalised this very idea with his well-known theory of encoding specificity in learning and recall.

NLP Research

With regard to the research into NLP, Einspruch & Forman (1985) noted correctly that “the representational system in which information will be stored or from which it will be retrieved is highly contextualized (i.e., varies with the situation), and this context will directly influence the system used.” These researchers were particularly perceptive in noting that “context plays an important role in determining the meaning as well as the structure of any communication.” This is well-known in linguistics and psycholinguistics (e.g. the involvement of context in the resolution of syntactic sentence ambiguity, Mitchell, 1994).

Einspruch & Forman criticised the experimental results of Gumm, Walker, & Day (1982) for neglecting to control for context. After interviewing experimental participants to determine their PRS, they were moved to a room surrounded by curtains, where their heads were placed in a restraining device so that eye-movements could be filmed. This severe contextual alteration would certainly be sufficient to abolish any effects of from dominant representational system usage.

“The processing of memories is heavily influenced by the context within which learning and recall take place.”

Gumm et. al. attempted to determine the PRS using 3 different techniques: predicate tracking, eye movement monitoring and self-report. Their finding that “each assessment method was shown to be biased toward revealing a particular representational modality,” and that such a bias “may be the result of the counsellor’s primary employment of a particular method of assessing the client’s PRS,” illustrates a recognition for the influence of context and their lack of control for it in their experiment. People inevitably adjust processing strategies according to both explicit and implicit demands of a presenting task, and such experiments only serve to illustrate this point further.

Pattern #3: Language Creates a Context Within Which People Respond

Current Understanding

The current representational system model proposes that the system a person accesses is heavily influenced by:

  • the current context and the type of question asked (which together create task demands);
  • the way a person represents the particular context which is being asked about.

NLP Research

Gumm et. al. measured PRS by “recording the position of the initial eye movement following the end of each question.” An understanding of eye-accessing strategies precludes this method of accessing some type of a stable representational system.

Bandler & Grinder (1979), when discussing eye-accessing cues, draw attention to the possibility that when you ask someone what their mother looks like, they may first access the auditory system (there are many reasons this may happen – a person may talk to their mother more often than they see her, etc.), subsequently check their feelings (that may give them a response which indicates that they are indeed listening to their mother), then access an image of her from memory. Thus there may be, on occasion, a sequence of accessing cues (called a strategy) which take place, which will be different depending upon task demands, type of language used to elicit the strategy and habitual responses, among others.

Gumm et. al. also used a self-report measure, asking participants what they thought their primary representational system was. The results of such investigations are likely to depend in large part on the verbal frame presented by the experimenter. For example, Elich, Thompson, & Miller (1985) told subjects that “personality characteristics would be assessed through the use of imagery.” Subsequently, “subjects were asked to describe the image or sequence of images evoked by the question,” and “subjects were asked to imagine and describe their favourite experience in order to assess spoken predicates.”

The unsurprising results of this study were that:

  • “Imaging did not occur exclusively in the single modalities suggested by Bandler and Grinder but involved the multi-modal experience of a visual image followed by the image intended by the question.”
  • “With the auditory and kinaesthetic questions, the most common occurrence was a visual image followed by either the auditory or kinesthetic image.”
  • “The images evoked by the control questions were visual.”
  • “Most subjects regarded themselves as visualizers.”
  • “Most predicates were visual.”

Elich et. al. recognised that “the term imagery may have set an expectation to have visual images and use visual predicates. If so, PRS is heavily influenced by situational variables like language.”

Falzett (1981) had participants read and generate an internal response to 6 questions in order to determine the person’s PRS. Unfortunately the content of these questions are leading enough in terms of sensory predicates to be good candidates for eye-accessing cue elicitation questions.

Two questions were kinaesthetically biased:

  • I’d like you to think about the last time you were really comfortable.
  • What was the last thing you touched that you really enjoyed?

One question was auditorily biased:

  • What was the last song you heard before coming here?

And only three of the six were adequately general to examine strategic preferences without leading in any way:

  • I’d like you to think of a time when you had accomplished an important goal.
  • What is the last thing you remember before you came in here?
  • I’d like you to now think of a pleasant childhood experience.

The following elicitation requests were designed to elicit verbal responses about which confederates could feed back predicates to gain rapport. However, they are structured in such a way that makes them likely to elicit belief strategies (to find out how a person knows something to be true) and hence create task demands which differ from those desired in the experiment (i.e. eliciting PRS predicates):

  • When you knew someone understood you
  • When someone loved or cared about you
  • When you knew someone trusted you

Out of 24 participants, Falzett found “only 3 who were not predominantly kinaesthetic” in their responses to these questions. This may simply indicate that most people in the study had a tendency to use a kinaesthetic component as a significant part of their belief strategies.

Examples of more general experiences which would control for context and potential mental strategies would be:

  • A boring experience in the same context
  • A common experience in the same context

These would be less likely to have leading or biasing factors which confound results.

Additionally, Falzett’s finding that matching predicates increased trustworthiness may simply be an artefact of confederate’s usage of predominantly kinaesthetic predicates, which may have imparted the confederate with an air of genuine self-expression and thus, trustworthiness. Without control sets, however, such a hypothesis is impossible to verify.

The observation by Falzett that eye-accessing cues yielded the best results for determining PRS was dangerously generalised by Dorn (1983) to mean that eye-accessing cues are “most conducive to research on NLP and should be employed over the predicate usage method.” This consideration was likely made because of the inconsistencies of research findings surrounding the PRS. However, methodological errors like those above creates a sense of chasing one’s own tail in terms of attempting to make conclusions about experimental findings in NLP research.


While Sharpley (1987) criticised Einspruch & Forman (1985) for dismissing numerous NLP research papers on the basis of their unfamiliarity with and lack of training in NLP, it is important to recognise that good quality training can avoid certain methodological pitfalls which would have been apparent to those who had undergone adequate training.

However, the ability to understand the issues uncovered above is by no means confined to NLP practitioners, given that they are all well known psychological effects and widely accepted in the psychological research community as being important considerations to take into account during the methodological design phase.

Thus, while psychologists and cognitive scientists undergoing research into NLP concepts do not necessarily have to have undergone NLP training, the additional filters and perspectives of comprehensive NLP training can allow a more coherent explanation of experimental results in terms of the patterns of behaviours occurring within experimental contexts

Given that even the research which had found effects supporting NLP concepts suffered from various methodological confounds, it is not easy to make any generalisations about the validity or use of past research into NLP. What is clear, is the importance of careful, well planned research into NLP in the future, to assist the development of the field of NLP as a whole.

“Careful, well planned research into NLP in the future is important to assist the development of the field.”


Balsam, P.D. & Tomie, A. (1985) Context and Learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. (1979). Frogs into princes : neuro linguistic programming. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Dorn, F. (1983). Assessing primary representational system (PRS) preference for Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) using three methods. Counselor Education and Supervision Vol 23(2) Dec 1983, 149-156, 23, 149-156.

Einspruch, E. L., & Forman, B. D. (1985). Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 589-596.

Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. (1985). Mental imagery as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 622-625.

Falzett, W. (1981). Matched versus unmatched primary representational systems and their relationship to perceived trustworthiness in a counseling analog. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 305-308.

Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and under water. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 325 – 331.

Gumm, W., Walker, M., & Day, H. (1982). Neurolinguistic programming: Method or myth? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 29, 327-330.

Miller, R.R. & Schachtman, T.R. (1985): The Several Roles of Context at the Time of Retrieval. In P.D. Balsam & A. Tomie (Eds.), Context and Learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mitchell, D.C. (1994): Sentence parsing, in Morton Ann Gernsbacher (ed.), Handbook of psycholinguistics, Academic Press

About the Author

Richard Thompson, BSc. (Cognitive Science), is a Graduate of Exeter University, and is a freelance writer and web consultant. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP, from INSPIRITIVE, and enjoys receiving responses to his work.

Article content copyright 2006. Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

All other material copyright 2006. INSPIRITIVE Pty Ltd. All rights reserved

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful hit the share button!

Preferred Representational Systems

Much of the research done in the 1980s on NLP as concerned with a concept developed by Bandler & Grinder (1976); the highly valued representational system, an adjunct to the representational systems model whose basic premise is that people represent and organise the external world using internal systems based on the five senses.

Bandler and Grinder proposed that “the predicates, the words a person chooses to describe their situation – when they are specified by representational system, let us know what their consciousness is.,  The predicates indicate what portion [of internal representations] they bring into awareness.” These “predicates are used to describe the portions of a person’s experience which correspond to the processes and relationships in that experience;” (pp 9).

The most important implication of this model was that “by consciously selecting your predicates to match those of the person with whom you want to communicate, you will succeed in accomplishing clearer and more direct communications” (pp. 15)

Sample Predicates (pp. 15, 1976)

Kinesthetic ,Visual , Auditory

Feel ,                See ,           Hear

Touch ,            Show ,       Listen

Feels ,              Looks ,      Sounds

The Original Interpretation

Bandler and Grinder (1976) originally specified a “highly valued representational system:”

  • “We, as humans, usually have a most highly valued representational system, and very often we will neglect to use the additional representational systems available to us.” (pp. 25)
  • “We tend to use one or more of these representational systems as a map more often than the others,” (pp. 8)
  • “Comments such as ‘I see what you’re saying’ are most often communicated by people who organize their world primarily with pictures. These are people whose most highly valued representational system is visual.”
  • “People limit themselves by deleting a portion of their experience [and] leaving out an entire representational system, [reducing] his model and his experience.” (pp. 12)
  • “If we communicate with predicates that are kinaesthetic, it will be easier for [a ‘kinaesthetic person’] both to understand our communication and to know that we understand him. This process of shifting predicates to allow our clients to understand our communication with greater ease is the basis and the beginning of trust.” (pp. 14)
  • “This particular client’s model of the world was primarily visual” (pp 17)

Conceptions of PRS In The Research Literature

Much of the research based upon the concept of a PRS adopted a fairly constrained interpretation of Bandler & Grinder’s model. For example:

  • “People perceive events in the world and subsequently represent their subjective experience of these events primarily through one of the visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic sensory systems, even though stimuli impinge on all sensory channels.” (Ellickson, 1983)
  • “People have a primary or preferred representational system (PRS) for representing the world. Information is processed as visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic images,” (Elich, Thompson and Miller, 1985)
  • “If the therapist can ascertain the client’s PRS and interact with the client in the client’s PRS, enhanced communication, trust, and therapeutic progress will result,” (Elich et. al.)
  • “Bandler and Grinder argue that communication between a therapist and a client with different PRSs is difficult because each communicates through different modes of experience and internal representations of the world.” (Elich et. al.)
  • “When the counsellor identifies the client’s representational system and then communicates in the same sensory system, understanding between client and counsellor is increased and rapport is enhanced.” (Ellickson, 1983)
  • “Communication between individuals with differing PRSs can be difficult” (Falzett, 1981)

An Alternative Interpretation

Conceptions of the representational systems model within the research literature tended to ignore Bandler & Grinder’s indications of flexibility and context-specificity:

  • “By most highly valued representational system we mean the representational system the person typically uses to bring information into consciousness, to represent the world and his experience to himself.,  A person may have more than one most highly valued representational system, alternating them.” (pp. 26, 1976)
  • “When you play athletics or make love, you have a lot of kinaesthetic sensitivity.,  When you are reading or watching a movie, you have a lot of visual consciousness.,  You can shift from one to the other.,  There are contextual markers that allow you to shift from one strategy to another.” (p36, 1979)
  • “You are using all systems all the time.,  In a particular context you will be aware of one system more than another” (p 36, 1979)
  • “Some representational systems may be more efficient for certain tasks.” (pp. 26, 1976)
  • “After allowing yourself to hear and to identify the person’s representational system, ask him directly how he is organising his experience at this point in time.” (pp. 11, 1976)
  • “[One variable to determine, is] the client’s most highly valued representational system for this problem.” (pp. 174)
  • “Most people use the same kind of strategy to do everything”, but “rather than thinking of yourself as being visually oriented, kinaesthetically oriented, or auditorily oriented, take what you do best as a statement about which system you already have well-developed and refined.” (pp. 36, 1979)

Einspruch & Forman (1985) seem to be the only researchers who took note of the rather implicit suggestions made by Bandler & Grinder, criticising numerous research studies for apparently not considering or providing adequate controls for the fact that

“…the representational system in which information will be stored or from which it will be retrieved is highly contextualized (i.e. varies with the situation), and this context will directly influence the system used.”

Inaccurate Perceptions

In addition, some academic authors made theoretical and practical extensions to the model which were not necessarily in line with the original specifications. These additions have resulted in detrimental consequences to the research, given that their implications result in testing models other than those defined by NLP.

  • “Most cognitive events associated with day-to-day experiences are principally encoded in one of the three major modalities.” (Gumm, Walker and Day, 1982). An “individual’s experience will then be stored in a primary representational system (PRS); that is, the sensory system most frequently used.” (Falzett, 1981) Note that the original specifications of representational systems did not refer to encoding or storage processes at all. It was not necessary to propose storage strategies, because they cannot be determined through – nor are they relevant to – verbal or non-verbal communication.
  • “The counsellor can monitor the client’s eye movements during the counselling session,” or “simply seek the client’s own opinion regarding the client’s preferred modality,” to “identify the client’s PRS” (Gumm, Walker and Day, 1982). Dorn (1983) also explores the latter technique, despite acknowledging in the same paper that “people unconsciously choose specific words that best represent an experience. Note that Bandler & Grinder originally proposed tracking predicates as the only appropriate behaviour to determine the “highly valued representational system.”
  • Dorn (1983) attempted to determine participants PRS through asking participants to select their preferred predicate from each of 18 sets of three predicates; one visual, one auditory and one kinaesthetic. The study thus assumed that choosing a word presented visually reflects upon a similar system or strategy involved in making word choices in verbal descriptive action, which is an unwarranted assumption.
  • Dorn (1983) lists “blast” as an auditory predicate which appeared in one of the triads (taken from Bandler & Grinder, 1976). Although the source is one of the original NLP source-books, “blast” is in fact, non-specific, potentially referring to visual (image of a dynamite blast), auditory (trumpet blast) or kinaesthetic (a blast of hot air) representations. It is a simple task to check whether predicates are “clean,” i.e. specific to one and only one representational system, and as such should not be overlooked in serious research.

Two important issues are inherent in these illustrations:

  1. Definitions and presuppositions of NLP models must be agreed upon and adequately defined to avoid misinterpretation.
  2. Models tested in experimental studies must be in line with the presuppositions contained in the model being investigated.

We recommend comprehensive and professionally-accredited NLP training, to provide the distinctions necessary to perform useful and beneficial experimental studies into the area of NLP.

The Current Specification

Clearly many researchers were not able to wholly interpret and apply the full PRS specification in their research, and this calls attention to the importantance of having clearly and concretely specified models within NLP.

Whether or not the subsequent research on the preferred representational system influenced the conceptions of the model within the NLP community, it is clear that Bostic St. Clair & Grinder’s (2001) New Code emphasis on individual calibration and sensory acuity, precludes such a rigidly specified model. Responding directly to sensory experience requires an immediacy which respects the importance of context and implicitly acknowledges the flexibility and context-dependence of peoples’ mental strategies in many diverse domains.

In his 1996 interview on this website, John Grinder has recommended that “anyone using the representational system material (e.g. eye movement patterns, unconscious selection of predicates….), [should] recognize and act congruently with the proposition that “the temporal value of a representational system diagnosis is 30 seconds.”

Bostic St. Clair & Grinder’s definition in “Whispering in the Wind,” calls attention to the ability to shift between representational systems: “The selection of predicates under normal circumstances is an unconscious act – this makes it particularly valuable to the trained listener as the speakers are thereby revealing what their present ongoing underlying activated mode of thought and processing is, typically without any awareness that they are offering such information. It is relatively simple to develop significant states of rapport by the simple strategy of tracking (that is, following the lead of) the representation system preferred by the person you are attempting to achieve rapport with – as they shift from one representational system to another, you simply adjust your communication to remain in synch.”

Thus because “both parties are presenting their material in the same representational system,” information transfer is effective and efficient.

Note that Bostic St. Clair and Grinder describe preference for representational system in the same breath as describing their ability to shift between them in their communications – presupposing context-specificity.

Thus, in specific contexts, a particular sensory system may take dominance (for example, being primarily aware of external kinesthetic representations – bodily movements and sensations – while swimming, or concentrating preferentially on auditory comparisons while composing a new melody on the piano).

Representational system preferences thus tend to be a contextual artefact in that when an individual considers specific contexts, their language can reflect how they process the information relating to the process of considering that context.

In certain cases a person may find themselves with certain rigid representations and strategies which preclude behavioural choice.,  In such a case, where one representational system may predominate, “the only thing you need to do is to join their system wherever they are and then slowly overlap to lead them into the system you want to engage them with” (1976, p44).

Thus sensory predicates should be matched in real-time, at the moment a person produces them. In fact, Hammer (1983) used the process of tracking and matching or mismatching predicates in this manner, finding an effect of matching on perceived empathy, although Hammer also neglected other methodological issues rendering the study inconclusive.


Understanding the development and the issues surrounding the PRS concept is a vital step in interpreting the results of academic research into NLP. Whether or not the research has had a direct impact upon the existing representational systems model, the current model is further in line with the New Code principle of calibration and the importance of considering the role of context in any communication.

Full References

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. (1979). Frogs into princes : neuro linguistic programming. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. T. (1976). The structure of magic II. Palo Alto, Calif.: Science and Behavior Books.

Bostic St. Clair, C., & Grinder, J. (2001). Whispering In The Wind. Scotts Valley, California 950666: J & C Enterprises.

Einspruch, E. L., & Forman, B. D. (1985). Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 589-596.

Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. (1985). Mental imagery as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 32(4), 622-625.

Ellickson, J. (1983). Representational systems and eye movements in an interview. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30, 339-345.

Falzett, W. (1981). Matched versus unmatched primary representational systems and their relationship to perceived trustworthiness in a counseling analog. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 305-308.

Gumm, W., Walker, M., & Day, H. (1982). Neurolinguistic programming: Method or myth? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 29, 327-330.

Hammer, A. L. (1983). Matching perceptual predicates: Effect on perceived empathy in a counseling analogue. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30(2), 172-179.

About the Author

Richard Thompson, BSc. (Cognitive Science), is a Graduate of Exeter University, and is a freelance writer and web consultant. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP and enjoys receiving responses to his work.

Article content copyright 2006. Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

All other material copyright 2006. INSPIRITIVE, Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful hit the share button!


NLP Research Literature Overview

A Summary of Research Reviews

A large amount of research on NLP was done in the early 1980s on a construct called the “Preferred Representational System” (PRS).

It has been surmised that proponents of NLP have, in the past (Sharpley, 1987) had “little to support them and much to answer to in the research literature.” Commenting on the research which had already been done by that time, Sharpley (1987) commented to researchers that “there [was] little use to the field of counseling research in further replications of previous studies,” until researchers had taken the time to perform a “careful meta-analysis of the large amount of data already gathered.”

Here it is hoped that such an undertaking will be able to promote, as Sharpley suggested, “future research that can contribute new data … via methodological advances [and a] consideration of different aspects of NLP.”

The majority of research into NLP concepts was primarily concerned with the concept of a “Preferred Representational System,” or PRS. It is important to understand the issues surrounding this concept before examining the research.

A large number of these studies only have limited value as evidence, however, due to significant confounding methodological and theoretical issues.

One common misunderstanding of the field of NLP in the psychological research is the important idea that NLP is an epistemology and a methodology, not a single theory or model.

“NLP is an epistemology and a methodology, not a single theory or model.”

Once these issues are understood, it will be possible to engage in useful and interesting research into the field of NLP, through adhering to a number of factors which are important in designing good research into NLP.

Sharpley’s (1984) Review: “NLP Is Unsupported in The Literature”

The first review of the experimental literature in NLP by Sharpley (1984) suggested little supportive evidence and a large amount of data opposing the validity of the concept of a PRS.

The review cited 15 studies which were concerned with determining:
  • The presence of a PRS,
  • Adequate methods to discover a PRS,
  • The effects of matching PRS with verbal predicates

However, the review did not consider numerous methodological dimensions which are important in examining and evaluating NLP research.

Einspruch & Forman’s (1985) Critique of Methodological Problems

Einspruch & Forman (1985), in a later review of 39 empirical studies (including all of the 15 initial studies) promoted the idea that NLP research is, in theory, testable and verifiable, but that past research was fraught with methodological confounds such as:

  • A lack of understanding important psychological patterns such as the effect of context;
  • An unfamiliarity with NLP as an approach to therapy;
  • Lack of familiarity with the “meta-model”;
  • Failure to consider the role of stimulus-response associations;
  • Inadequate interviewer training in rapport-building;
  • Logical mistakes

As a result of these criticisms, Einspruch & Forman (1985) classified all 39 studies as unreliable and concluded that it was “not possible at this time to determine the validity of either NLP concepts or whether NLP-based therapeutic procedures are effective for achieving therapeutic outcomes,” and that “only when well-designed empirical investigations are carried out may we be assured of NLP’s validity as a model of therapy.”

Bearing in mind New Code principles, specifically the significance of framing and context, at least two of these can be considered useful guiding principles in evaluating past research and planning future research.

1. Lack of understanding patterns of behaviour and control for confounding contextual factors surrounding the application of NLP models

Einspruch & Forman (1985) recognised that people behave in a way that is dependent upon the environment – the context – within which they find themselves. 15 studies were criticised for not taking this into account. An additional pattern not incorporated into studies was that of individual calibration; people are systematic with their own behaviour but it is potentially erroneous to assume that behaviour is systematic across any given population of people, and thus, procedures and interventions should be applied at the individual level and calibrated to each person’s characteristics.

2. Failure to consider the role of stimulus-response associations

Einspruch & Forman (1985) also understood that the basic concept of association was a powerful influencer of behaviour, and that people were likely to respond based on the associations they had learned, if the experimental settings did not control for this possibility.

These, and other examples of methodological errors in past research, can be summed up by using the following dimensions, which are core concepts to NLP as a discipline, and well recognised in psychological literature:

  • Associations influence processing
  • Features of a context (contextual markers) function as influential associations
  • Language creates task demands , serving as a contextual marker which provides a frame, thereby influencing responses

It is important to understand these concepts in order to conduct useful research.

Einspruch & Forman (1985) made other important and often misunderstood observations:

  • Representational systems are an important part of NLP, but are only one model within NLP
  • Researchers should be adequately trained in NLP so that the procedures and interventions generated can be used within the presuppositions contained in the model

Sharpley’s (1987) Reply

Although Einspruch & Forman did develop some useful methodological distinctions, Sharpley (1987) objected to the resultant dismissal of valuable research and produced a doubly-binding suggestion that either:

  • The past experimental results a lack of conclusive effects, or that
  • The procedures examined were not able to be adequately assessed.

Sharpley (1987) considered that not all of the criticisms Einspruch & Forman (1985) raised were reasonable, and resulted in a somewhat unnecessary dismissal of research.

For example, the criticism that experimenters had a “lack of familiarity with the meta-model” because they measure nominalisations such as anxiety, ease, empathy and hostility (used to discount the validity of 3 studies), can be upheld only insofar as the particular psychometric inventories used can be questioned as reliable.

Einspruch & Forman rejected the validity of 7 studies for an “unfamiliarity with NLP as an approach to therapy,” based on the criticism that asking questions about a client’s past displayed a misunderstanding of the nature of NLP as a generative as opposed to an archaeological approach. This appears to be a rather extreme view and is not necessarily true, in that theoretically, basing experiments around questions in a client’s past is not enough in itself to invalidate the testing of NLP.

Sharpley (1987) critisizes their exclusion of 12 studies because “researchers were not adequately trained in NLP” by commenting that “it is difficult to accept that none of the studies were performed by persons with enough of an understanding to perform the various procedures that were evaluated.” Unfortunately this is difficult to confirm or deny, given that up until now, there has been no officially recognised standard for NLP practitioners.

Sharpley (1987) cited a further 7 studies which showed no evidence in support of the concept of a PRS. However, these studies also contained various methodological issues. Elich, Thompson, & Miller (1985) and Graunke & Roberts (1985), for example, are among those studies discussed as examples of flawed methodological design.

Sharpley’s Conclusions

Some of Sharpley’s (1987) conclusions (which mirror Elich, Thompson, & Miller’s, 1985), provide similar conclusions to the current model of representational systems:

(a) PRS may change over time,

(b) It is not certain that PRS exists,

(c) PRS may merely reflect current language style,

(d) PRS may be heavily influenced by language.

While these conclusions are similar to our current position on representational systems – which mirror John Grinder’s – the methodology used to arrive at them leaves a great deal to be desired and points directly to factors to consider in any analysis of current research, and during the design phase of future research projects.

NLP as a Field and a Discipline

Unfortunately Sharpley and others have made a common mistake, revealing a failure to recognise that NLP is a methodology for creating outcome-oriented models, in considering that the PRS constitutes one of the basic tenets of NLP.

PRS is one aspect of a single model of NLP, and as such it is a mistake to assume that lack of evidence for one model within the field of NLP in any way compromises the validity or utility of subsequent NLP research, or on the field of NLP as practised currently.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the NLP as a field you can, claim your free copy of , our e-book ‘Neuro-Linguistic Programming; An Overview of the Field’, by Chris Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For a limited time only, here).

Sharpley concludes by putting NLP “in the same category as psychoanalysis, that is, with principles not easily demonstrated in laboratory settings but, nevertheless, strongly supported by clinicians in the field.”

Our proposal is that NLP can and should be researched, quantitatively and qualitatively.

Requirements For Future Research

If adequate research is to take place, concise, highly specified and empirically verifiable descriptions of the models of NLP need to be in place.

In order for this to happen there must be an agreement upon the definitions within the NLP community.

The Graduate Certificate NLP is the first step towards establishing an accepted standard, and along with Grinder & Bostic-St.Clair, Inspiritive and its collaborators are moving towards developing agreed-upon vocabulary and explicit definitions of the patterns and models of NLP.

If you would like to take part in this project, please contact Inspiritive. This is a vital endeavour if the field of NLP is to reclaim its roots within the Cognitive Sciences and consolidate its establishment as a valid field of endeavour, study and research.


Bostic St. Clair, C., & Grinder, J. (2001). Whispering In The Wind. Scotts Valley, California 950666: J & C Enterprises.

Einspruch, E. L., & Forman, B. D. (1985). Observations Concerning Research Literature on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 589-596.

Elich, M., Thompson, R. W., & Miller, L. (1985). Mental imagery as revealed by eye movements and spoken predicates: A test of neurolinguistic programming. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 622-625.

Graunke, B., & Roberts, T. (1985). Neurolinguistic programming: The impact of imagery tasks on sensory predicate usage. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32(4), 525-530.

Sharpley, C. F. (1984). Predicate matching in NLP: A review of research on the preferred representational system. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 31(2), 238-248.

Sharpley, C. F. (1987). Research findings on neurolinguistic programming: non-supportive data or an untestable theory? Journal of Counselling Psychology, 34, 103-107.

About the Author

Richard Thompson, BSc. (Cognitive Science), is a Graduate of Exeter University, and is a freelance writer and web consultant. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP and enjoys receiving responses to his work.

Article content copyright 2006. Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

All other material copyright 2006. INSPIRITIVE Pty Ltd. All rights reserved

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful hit the share button!