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.

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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”.

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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

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