Psychological Research and NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a psychological approach that aims to model the structure of expertise and expert performance and the patterns of communication that accompany them. Despite its popularity, the scientific validity of NLP has been questioned due to methodological errors in some of the studies conducted. In this article, we will explore the science behind NLP and address some of the methodological issues raised by critics.

One important aspect of NLP research is understanding the associative nature of the human nervous system. Pavlov’s famous experiments with dogs and bells illustrated the basic psychological understanding of association. NLP studies have occasionally overlooked the lessons learned from associative learning research. For example, Dorn (1983) attempted to determine participants’ preferred representational systems (PRS) by having them select one word out of three sets of visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic words. However, this study overlooked the fact that participants might choose a word based on its specific associations rather than their PRS.

Another important consideration in NLP research is the impact of context. Humans function within and are influenced by context, which significantly affects processing across a wide range of cognitive domains, including learning, memory, language interpretation, problem solving, and perception. The confounding and influential effects of context significantly affect processing in memory experiments, as well as in language interpretation, perception, and problem-solving. In a classic example of context-dependent memory, Baddeley and Godden (1975) tested the memory of participants in two different environments: underwater and on land. They found that participants recalled more words learned in the same environment where they were tested. The impact of context on NLP is also significant. For instance, Einspruch and Forman (1985) noted that the representational system in which information is stored or retrieved is highly contextualised and varies with the situation, directly influencing the system used. They also highlighted the importance of context in determining the meaning and structure of any communication.

Experimental design considerations are also critical to NLP research. Sharpley (1987) rightly pointed out that some of the methodological objections raised by Einspruch and Forman unnecessarily discounted a large number of potentially valuable results. However, an analysis of the literature reviews and the studies to which they refer revealed consistent oversights of vital distinctions necessary for scientific enquiry into NLP to succeed. NLP graduates are already trained in these core patterns, but it is important to integrate this knowledge into future design methodologies in NLP research.

In conclusion, the science behind NLP requires a deep understanding of the associative nature of the human nervous system, the impact of context on human functioning, and experimental design considerations. These factors have been overlooked in some studies, but their integration into future research can improve the scientific validity of NLP. While some criticisms of NLP may be valid, it is important to acknowledge the potential benefits of this approach and conduct rigorous studies to explore its effectiveness.


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 underwater. 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

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Flow States for Peak Performance

In today’s hyper-connected world you are expected to be able to respond to an incredibly diverse range of tasks without any compromise to performance.

Phone calls, interruptions, changes to plans, difficult new information, people issues, impromptu meetings and unforeseen circumstances all contrive to pull you from an ideal state of focus and effectiveness.

Our outcome as managers and professionals is getting more done in less time without compromising quality.

Knowing how to activate and maintain high performance states allows you to maintain control as you switch from one type of activity to another while managing interruptions without any significant loss of quality output.

In this series of posts I will be exploring the relationship between skills, mindset, our states/emotions and our performance. I will then describe the structure of high-performance ‘flow’ states and how to access and activate them for the purpose of increasing personal performance.

As you read this series about developing and activating flow states go ahead and test the simple patterns that I describe and note how this impacts on your performance.

What is flow?

There is a growing awareness of a psychological phenomena associated with high performance called flow. This is an experience where the person is fully engrossed in an activity to the extent that nothing else seems to matter and in which they are performing at the edge of their capacity.

Being in a flow state is typically pleasurable and in some instances the person experiences a distortion of their experience of time. What is a flow state?

The original work was developed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who described flow as

“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Knowing the structure of flow states and the contextual conditions in which they occur enables people to deliberately activate this desired state to bootstrap their performance.

In a future post I will unpack the features of a flow state and describe ways that high performance flow states can be activated deliberately and applied to situations of your choice to enhance your performance.

When and where do flow states occur?

What are the contextual conditions where flow states naturally occur for an individual? Consider for a moment any experience where you were fully engaged and absorbed in an activity, where you lost your sense of time passing and in which you performed exquisitely well.

In that example you were probably doing something in which you were skilled. There was a challenge in what you were doing and you were stretched to the edge of your ability in doing that task in that situation.

Flow occurs when a person is engaged in a task that they are skilled at, in a context that provides enough challenge for them to stretch themselves. The challenge in that context must not exceed their capacity nor must the challenge be too easy.

If in your work you manage or lead others, consider giving tasks to the people you lead that is challenging enough and is within their capacity. Consider how you can organise your work to provide enough challenge for yourself. In the next post I will explore motivation and flow.

Motivation and Flow States

Intrinsic or self motivation is an essential component of and prerequisite for entering and maintaining a flow state. Intrinsic motivation is where you are interested in the context that you are in and the task you are engaging in within that context. 

I used to teach with a psychiatrist who told me the story of how as a young man he was almost thrown out of his medical degree for underperforming. He reminded himself that he was doing his undergraduate medical degree so that he could later do post grad studies to become a psychiatrist. He made a decision “I might as well make this interesting”. He loved history so he then reframmed medicine as history. He put himself into a state of interest in relation to his studies and then performed exceptionally well. 

Once interested and motivated he was able to fully engage himself in his studies. Consider examples from your personal history where you performed well and note, were you interested in the context, the outcome and task (intrinsically motivated)? Did you want to achieve your outcome or intention? 

Features of Flow States

People who are embodied in high performance flow states have minimal muscular tension in their physiology. Typically their breathing is even and their attention is externally focused on the world and the task or activity that they are engaged in. 

If you observe someone who is in a flow state and performing exceptionally well you might notice that there is a symmetry in their body. That they have a soft focus with they eyes and that their attention is on the world around them. As well as a steady soft focus their peripheral vision is typically engaged and open. 

When in a high performance flow state the person has a complete lack of self-reflection. They are fully absorbed in the task that they are doing. There is a complete absence of internal dialogue. 

Contrast this with someone who is performing poorly. Their focus is often tunnel vision. They have a lot of internal dialogue and they are often self-reflecting as they attempt to do the task or activity.

Physiology, state and performance 

A by product of naming a category is that we have to use language and may make an artificial distinction that is epistemologically shoddy. For example, separating mind and body linguistically directs our thinking to make that metaphor concrete. How do we decide what falls into the category called Mind and the category called Body?

Physiology does not distinguish between mind and body. The brain is included naturally.

In any state we are using physiology, breathing and sensory attention in a particular manner. If we change our breathing, the way we are holding ourselves or moving will alter. If we change our  physiology or shift how we use our senses our state changes.

There is a relationship between our physiology, breathing pattern and #state. This is fundamental to developing, accessing, activating and applying flow states and is nicely described in a model developed by the linguist and co-creator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming John Grinder which he called ‘The Chain of Excellence’.

The model holds that a person’s #performance is a function of their state. To change state change physiology and a simple way to change physiology is to change one’s breathing pattern.

Exploring flow states

Most people have experienced being in a high performance flow state. One way to explore any state is comparing and contrasting it with a different state. This is one of the most basic ways in which we learn. We are creating what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson calls “news of difference”. 

To do this, identify two states for the contrast. Take an example of when you were in a flow state and select an example of when you were performing below par. 

The next step is to reactivate each state separately. To do this, take your example of the flow state and remember when and where you experienced the state and the circumstances. Can you remember what you saw, heard and felt at the time? Make sure the memory is life size, three dimensional and moving. Take the position as if you are reliving the experience, looking out of your eyes, listening through your ears, aware of posture and pattern of breathing. Then shake off the state and repeat the exercise using the subpar state.

Compare the experiences of the two states noting differences in posture, breathing and muscular tension, and attention variables: focus vs peripheral vision, external sound vs internal dialogue. 

Generating flow states Using Sense Memory

As applied in the previous post, one way to access a high-performance flow state is through reactivating an example from one’s own history. 

When we do this we are bringing conscious attention to the sights, sounds and sensations we experienced there at that time. Method actors refer to this as Sense Memory. It is an approach to activating and embodying desired states to bring a character to life.

A potential risk of using sense memory to reactivate a state is that the state may have undesired historical associations that reduce the quality of the result when we apply the reactivated state to the context where we want to improve our performance.

Another way to activate a high-performance flow state is using games or activities that generate a high-performance flow state free of history and associations.

The activity produces a high-performance flow state as a by product of the activity. The state is content free, produced in the present and can be applied to any context where we want it. 

Defining the context for enhancing our performance

High-performance flow states can be applied to situations, times and places to increase our performance significantly. First we need to identify and prepare the context where we want to boost our performance.

Ask yourself, ‘Is there a situation, time and place where I produce poor performance?’. When you have chosen a context, explore it with sense memory (see earlier post). Place yourself mentally back in that situation, time and place and bring it to life around you. 

Take an inventory of your state in that situation. How is your posture, movement and breathing pattern? How are you attending with your senses?

Now ‘step back’ from that situation and act ‘as if’ you can observe yourself in that context. 

Consider, if I were to increase my performance noticeably in that context, what would be the consequences to productivity, effectiveness and personal accomplishment?

Now you have defined and prepared the context you are ready to create a flow state for that context.

Generating flow states using activities

There are a number of games already developed for generating flow states as byproducts of the activities. I will describe the principles of game design so that you can explore this for yourself, instead of describing the specific games that I use with clients. 

Juggling with one addition is an activity that can be used to generate a high #performance flow state. What are the features of learning to juggle that produce a flow state? 

Juggling has a variable set of conditions to produce challenge. When first learning to juggle you start with just one ball, then progress to two balls and then to three. You have enough challenge based on your level of skill. For some people using one or two balls correctly with an even rhythm an even arc can produce sufficient challenge for a person to perform at the edge of their ability. 

Automation. As you progress, tossing and catching the ball/s will automate. The basic movements will become unconsciously competent. 

External attention and stimulation of peripheral vision. Juggling the balls in a steady, even rhythm automatically stimulates and opens up peripheral vision. Your visual attention will be external. 

Juggling has other features that can generate a flow state In addition to the features described in the last post.

Physiology. Juggling uses both sides of your body and thus activates both brain hemispheres. To succeed you must use your physiology in a resourceful manner with upright balanced posture and even breathing. Typically people breathe with an even rhythm when in highly resourceful states.

Ideally you want to have minimal muscular tension in your body as you juggle. There should be varying tension only in the muscles you need to make the toss and catch. 

Reduced internal dialogue. To do this I suggest you add a ‘content free’ auditory task to your juggling such as reciting multiplication tables out loud. This not only helps to keep your chosen rhythm, it also has the same function as a mantra used in meditation. 

Feedback on performance. In most games feedback is provided by the coach. In juggling the feedback is provided through dropping the ball. You pick up the ball, re-adjust your attention and physiology and begin again.

Juggling with an auditory task for about 15 minutes without dropping the balls will typically develop a flow state. 

Learn more

Check our course Competitive Advantage, States and Performance.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

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Attention and Performance: How you attend to the world can transform your performance in it

Attention, State and Performance

In article 4 in the Attention series Jules the relationship between how we use our attention, our state and performance.


The set of specific values in a person’s physiology, neurology and biochemistry that gives rise to their behavioural expression and their subjective experience of themselves and the world in any given moment. Some states recur in each culture with sufficient frequency to have acquired labels in the appropriate language. Examples include joy, depression, happiness, angst, and joie de vivre. Naming states implies a commonality of experience, which is not necessarily the case. Naming states does not describe the differences in individual subjective experience which actually exist within any particular named state: I.e. one person’s generation and experience of elation, misery or anxiety will be different from someone else’s and two people deliberately generating the same conditions within their bodies may call the resulting state by different names.

Our states influence the quality and direction of our attention and our attention influences our states. States act as frames for how we use our attention, what we attend to and what we delete from our attention. States influence the perceptual filters we apply and simultaneously our more pervasive perceptual filters influence our access to different states.

“Our states influence the quality and direction of our attention and our attention influences our states.”

States give rise to mood frames such as happy, sad, optimistic and pessimistic. They also influence the likelihood or absence of choice and opinion based responses such as willingness, co-operation, participation and trust.

States are not fixed. They shift continually, sometimes imperceptibly in small increments, yet they can also shift radically. This may be in response to receiving new information or to a sudden recognition of a change of meaning of existing information, though it can also occur when an activity starts or ends. Receiving important exam results, making a large purchase and even having a meal often precipitates a change of state.

Some people experience states which are notably different from most of their other states. Certain frames and information which are normally accessible to them are not found while in these radically different states. If these states also require special circumstances to enter and leave, they are known as Dissociated States. Dissociated states often carry framing and meaning that is only accessible to a person when they are in that state. Examples include the sudden state changes associated with experiencing road accidents and chemically induced altered states such as exposure to mind altering drugs or alcohol. The alcoholic Black out is a case in point, where a person cannot remember what happened at a party until they are that drunk again, when it all comes back to them.

“There is anecdotal evidence that it is very hard to maintain a depressed state while doing a headstand.”

Chronically depressed states often have characteristics of dissociated states. When someone is experiencing depression, they are likely to express a belief that it is pervasive and continuous. In depression, they may not have access to the moments in their day when their attention has elicited a different state. They have difficulty imagining life being more rewarding, and often they cannot access their memories of pre-depression life or the moments, hours and days where their attention is on something other than being depressed.

Where You Place Your Attention Can Affect Your State

What we attend to and how we attend to it can elicit changes in our state. We can learn to enter and leave any state by shifting our attention. If the process we use to shift our attention is sufficiently compelling, even the most subjectively difficult states will shift for long enough to provide a reference experience, unless they are chemically induced. Yet most of us have heard anecdotes relating to people in chemical hazes who seem to snap out of it for a brief period to present a straight or sober countenance to the world.

There is anecdotal evidence that it is very hard to maintain a depressed state while doing a headstand. Certainly this is not a long term option, but giving someone live evidence of a state change, even for a minute or two, can shift a belief that feeling depressed is all-pervasive. If someone can change that belief enough to consider other options, they may be open to learning more user friendly attention shifting skills. Then they can discover, through live experience, that changing state by choice is a skill which they can learn.

John Grinder’s ‘Chain of Excellence’

For our purposes, learning to change state is predicated on a person’s natural and habitual states, more than those involving artificial aids. John Grinder, the co-originator of NLP, proposes a ‘Chain of Excellence’ leading to enhanced performance in any context:





The Chain of Excellence has three points of leverage to shift attention and create a better quality of action in the world. They are:

  1. Change your breathing pattern and your physiology (posture, movement, carriage) will change.
  2. Change your physiology and your state will change.
  3. Change your state and your performance will change. (Performance includes natural interactions, reading, sleeping and eating as well prepared activities and working).

If you act on any one of the three, the categories below will shift in response. To test this, consider an issue in your life and note your state. Then go for a ten minute brisk walk with an even, balanced posture and your head up comfortably. You will find your breathing will deepen, your physiology will be nicely shaken up and your thinking will become clearer.

You can attend to any matter on your agenda as you walk, or you can think about it before you walk, then shift your attention to enjoy the walk and return to the matter afterwards. Your take on it will be different. This is an example of a model known as ‘Personal Editing’, created by Judith DeLozier and is the simplest and most natural way to do it. You can see it unfolding in daily life if you attend gym, exercise or dance classes. The class members come in after work in a work state. They attend to class, move, exercise and perform routines. Then they leave in a different state.

When you engage the Chain of Excellence, your attention goes to the element you want to shift. When you follow through, your body function supports resourceful states that promote high quality attention. Personal editing can provide you with a generic resource state which you can take anywhere. Then, when you enter a specific context, the state will enable you to access appropriate resources for performing well in that context.

A ‘Four Step Change Process’

In the New Code of NLP, John Grinder has developed a ‘Four Step Change Process’. It applies leverage through the Chain of Excellence to create generic, content-free (go anywhere) resource states. Step 3 requires an activity that applies the leverage of the Chain of Excellence. In this case I recommend the Personal Editing brisk walk as you can do this by yourself and I have described it already.

  1. Identify a context where you want to perform with excellence and currently do not.
  2. Step briefly into the context and experience it.
  3. Step out of the context and start a Personal Editing brisk walk immediately, attending only to the sensory experience of walking and seeing and hearing your environment in real time.
  4. At the end of 10-15 minutes brisk walking, step into the context you chose in the state you are in now. Let the state blend into the context and enjoy the result. Now you experience the difference.

By Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer at INSPIRITIVE Pty Ltd.

Attention Training Articles

  1. Apply leverage to your attention for productivity by choice
    by Jules Collingwood
  2. 5 elements to enhance the quality of your attention and further your outcomes
    by Jules Collingwood
  3. Creating meaningful change and altering the way you represent the world
    by Jules Collingwood
  4. How you attend to the world can transform your performance in it
    by Jules Collingwood
  5. How using your attention can change the quality of your states (and vice versa)
    by Jules Collingwood

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

Related articles

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

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