Introduction to NLP and the science behind
Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a way not to be afraid to speak in public, or to feel super motivated to do a boring, but necessary task? NLP may help you do some of that. Read on for an introduction to NLP to see what it is, and what it isn’t.
Where does NLP come from?
I’m sure many of you have heard of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) as a buzzword from the 80s. After that, it has lost some of its shiny glow.
Defining NLP can be difficult. I prefer to think of it as a toolbox where, amongst other things, visualization and concentration are central.
If your gut reaction is to shake your head and ask what I’ve been smoking to buy into this popular pseudo science, feel free to jump further down the page to read about some of the critiques NLP has received. And also, why I still think it can be a valuable tool to spend some time learning how to use.
A simplified description
Every day, we are overloaded with information. There are just too many impressions for us to interpret. And too many decisions for us to make.
Our minds just cannot process all of it, so it needs shortcuts. Those shortcuts can help us immensely, but they can also make us take the wrong decisions.
One way of thinking about it is to consider two systems that are driving your decisions. At least that’s how Daniel Kahneman describes it in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He writes about types of social cues and shortcuts the brain uses, and it’s a great read for a deeper understanding of decision making.
What does NLP have to do with it?
Parts of NLP is about creating those cues for the actions you want to take, and the feelings you want to experience.
For example, our memory can get triggered by almost anything. It can be a sound, smell, movement, or something you see. Often, we forget that all of our senses play an important part in creating those memories.
All these senses can be used to either enhance a positive memory or feeling. Or they can be used to reduce negative ones. They can also make us perform certain tasks better if we use them correctly.
For example, several studies show that students perform better on tests if they’re tested in the same environment that they learned about the subject. The same is true for the mood they were in when they studied.
How do we do this in practice?
If we can play around with all senses to increase something we want more of in our lives, or to decrease something we want less of, that can enable us to control a significant part of ourselves and our futures.
It can be used to defeat phobias, improve socializing skills, increase confidence, making hard decisions, goal setting, process traumatic events, create or break habits, stop procrastination, or make you comfortable doing things you don’t like to do.
The tool box
Most of the resources used in NLP are different patterns and exercises where you use your senses to influence the things you want to feel.
It can be to see a picture in your head and using tools to make that image stronger or weaker. Some of the ways of doing this are:
- Being associated or dissociated in your visualization. Meaning you can see yourself from far away, close up, or you can be inside yourself.
- To make a picture or movie clearer. It can have brighter colors, be closer to you, or it can be in black and white, and move far away.
- The same way, you can play with the intensity of the sounds, smells, and movements to increase or decrease the power of what you’re visualizing.
An effective way of lessening a memory’s impact is to play with it to make it less powerful. Make it smaller, imagine it being on a computer screen far away. Play with the sounds and make them sound silly.
To increase the impact of something, try remembering smells, make the sounds clearer, the pictures brighter and bigger. Remember how you would like to move, change your posture and stand somewhere else in the room.
By using techniques like that, you can remove or reduce the impact of negative memories or things you don’t want to have in your life. The same way, you can play around to increase the impact of things you want more of.
An anchor example
One easy technique is to use an anchor to store positive memories and feelings. If you want to be confident speaking in front of an audience, try to build an anchor for that feeling. That way, you can use that resource anytime you need it.
Imagine yourself in a specific situation when you felt calm and confident. Pay attention to your posture. How did you stand? What did you smell? Where in your body do you feel the confidence coming from? Does it have a color or shape?
Try showering yourself with all the feelings that you had during that positive experience. Try doubling it. Make the memory stand out brighter and clearer.
Then let your left thumb and your left index finger meet. Keep multiplying the sensation while you keep your fingers like that. Take them apart when you stop.
Now every time you want to find that feeling of calm and confidence, you put your thumb and index finger together.
Think of the anchor the same way you would think of the bell Pavlov used. Every time the bell rang, the dogs would start drooling because they associated the sound of the bell with food.
Limitations and practice
I don’t say this is a magic trick that will work after just one time. But try stacking several memories on top of each other, and practice several times.
There are numerous other patterns to use for different things you want to achieve. They often contain things as stepping into an imaginary circle, breathing in a certain way, or sitting in different places.
All of them usually have in common that they want you to start thinking of a problem, then remove yourself from that, and lastly to think of a resource instead.
The goal is to eventually merge those two so that what today triggers the negative response from you, will eventually start triggering the positive feeling instead.
It can take a long or short time to recode your way of thinking about something. A theory behind NLP is that you need to spend time strengthening the patterns in your brain that are positive.
The more time you spend reinforcing a pattern, the easier it will be to light up that path in your brain. This is called Hebb’s law, and the trick is to repeat the thoughts you want to reinforce the new pathways in the brain.
Looking at the criticism
As an atheist, critic, and someone who always has been devoted to science, I approach any subject with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Trying to find evidence to support NLP, in general, is difficult. And in my search for it, I would say I mostly found people expressing their superiority in different forum posts, trying to make the other side look bad.
The actual science I found was mostly inadequate. A few studies from the 80s tried testing if people can be divided into groups based on which senses they experience the world through. Meaning for example, that some people see things, other hear them, while others again need movement.
Those studies have found no evidence for NLP, but as I have understood it, that is not an essential part of NLP and hasn’t been for a very long time.
Which parts of NLP are supported by science?
I found that newer studies on topics that can at least be related to the background for the NLP techniques I have discussed here, seem to support some of them. For example, Sara Lazar at Harvard University has found evidence that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain.
- Click here for a Q&A session with Lazar in the Washington Post
Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, has found similar results from studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhists.
EMDR (Eye Movement treatment Desensitization and Reprocessing) has also found support in recent scientific studies. When testing the techniques on patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, one can measure changes in the activity of certain parts of the brain that is triggering stress.
Another widely discussed topic is the results of mental practice and visualization in sports performance. A meta study of the phenomenon can be found here.
Cheating with the Placebo effect
I have no reason for taking NLP as anything more than a way of collecting techniques similar to these in a framework. At least not without further research on the subject. However, the framework may be a useful way of thinking, and I decided to give it a chance.
I’m more than skeptical to famous NLP practitioners who claim that NLP works but can’t be tested in a scientific way. That’s bullshit, and we all know it. However, I don’t want to throw away everything just because some people give NLP a bad reputation.
Another way of looking at it if you don’t think any of the scientific evidence above can be applied to NLP, is to consider the techniques a way enforce a Placebo effect. As we all know through several decades of research now, the Placebo effect is real – and inherently powerful.
If all NLP gives me is a Placebo effect, I will happily take it. The same way I welcome the Placebo effect in painkillers or even from surgery. (Yes, go ahead and click on the links. Those are both real phenomena.)
The Placebo effect is not just something you imagine; it is a real effect. Finding a way to tap into that can give you an enormous potential.
Follow the blog for further posts on how you can apply NLP techniques to areas in your personal life as well as career.
Further reading for an introduction to NLP
If you want to read up on the subject, I recommend these two books, in particular, starting with “NLP. The Essential Guide”.