Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Other Theoretical Traditions

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The comment thread following my post back in May about the Neuro-Linguistic Programming idea of anchoring got me thinking in more detail than hitherto about the relationship NLP has with other theoretical traditions. I've been finding a useful (if not central) part of my relationship with the world for a decade or more, providing some useful ways of thinking about the learning process and the coaching process.

However, I've been aware for some time that academia has a largely snooty attitude towards NLP, for a number of reasons, some of which NLP has brought upon itself. There is an anti-theoretical streak particularly to the early literature, which is never going to endear it to scholarly minds, plus the training models tend strongly to the profit-led and uncritical. There is a mistrust among scholars that NLP is a bit of a snake-oil outfit, more fake-tan than substance.

The wholesale rejection of the field as a 'pseudoscience' appears to rest on empirical studies which found the specific and consistent relationship NLP posits between gaze behaviour and mode of thought to be neither specific nor consistent. Something is going on between eye movement and cognition, but it can't be reduced to a nice simple rubric suitable for the training of salesmen.

At the same time, though, there are all kinds of resonances between the NLP's models of cognition, learning and identity and theories that are fully respectable, or at least well-established, in the academy. And I find it rather odd that, given these connections, NLP should be seen as quite as déclassé as it is.

For instance, in the pragmatics of education, you find people talking about learning styles in terms clearly derived from NLP's ideas of sensory modality; it is a commonplace of good practice that teachers do well to vary their materials and methods so as to appeal to visual, aural and kinaesthetic learners. Likewise, the idea that a learner's beliefs about themselves and about the learning process condition which capabilities they can develop shine through studies based on attribution theory.

The connections are more interesting though in the more philosophical forms of enquiry - epistemology, phenomenology and theories of identity. The foundational premise of NLP that 'the map is not the territory' could almost be an executive summary of Lakoff and Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphor. We understand the world through internal representations that allow us to interpret perceptions via different domains of experience in ways that simultaneously highlight and hide different aspects of that which they represent.

And NLP's equation between preferred use of language and primary mode of sensory cognition may be overly simplistic, but it nonetheless articulates very clearly two interrelated features of their theory that Lakoff and Johnson flagged as significant. First, that all abstract thought is rooted in perceptual experience; the mind's analysis of the world is rooted in embodied life. Second, that language is derived from this lived experience; encoded in the manipulation of linguistic symbols is the manipulation of real-life objects in the physical world. For instance, If I say I'm giving a broad overview of the subject here, I am taking you up on a metaphorical hill where you can see lots of it at once, but not in very much detail.

Lakoff and Johnson were rather more interested in our shared cultural representations, while NLP, with its roots in therapy, is more focused on individual variability, but they share this concept of embodied cognition and its effect on how we speak. And, as Mark Johnson argued in a subsequent book, this idea of the body in the mind is a radical philosophical break from ways of thinking that have traditional separated the concrete and the abstract.

An area of NLP theory that I have not yet blogged about despite toying with the idea for some years now, is Robert Dilts's hierarchy of environment-behaviours-capabilities-beliefs-identity-spirit. Each level of this model both generates the next one up, while constraining the next one down. Your capabilities are the sum of your current behaviours; what you believe determines what capabilities you can acquire (in both a positive and a negative sense).

Again, this is a very individualistic model; its focus is on the person as you find them, not the culture that shaped them. But it nonetheless articulates the idea that identity is performative. Who you are is not some kind of eternal, independent essence, but is an emergent quality, constituted from the sum of your actions. I can recall that we were most exercised when we first read Judith Butler describing gender identity as 'performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results '. Dilts clearly doesn't have the political edge of Butler's analysis of the discourses that regulate available behaviours; his category of 'environment' serves this purpose but without the level of critical attention.

I'm not trying to say that NLP is in the league of my intellectual heros. Obviously! But I do think it has been a bit hard done by in scholarly circles. It seems to have been on the receiving end of vitriol rather than critique, resulting in a wholesale baby/bathwater ejection event. I think it deserves at least a modicum of credit for the way it has participated in the late-20th-century paradigm shift that has started to re-imagine the relationships between cognition, perception, identity and language, and has done so in a way that is accessible to people who might find Butler's writing rather indigestible.

And at a day-to-day level, I continue to find it a useful way to mediate between my academic-theoretical interest in musical identity and my practical life of helping people make music more effectively.

There was, when I was in Japan, and still is quite a strong interest in NLP in EFL teaching. It is one of the two main research threads mentioned by the Teacher Education special interest group of the Japan Association of Language Teachers. One of the areas which NLP addresses, more than many other teaching methodologies, is not only preferred learning styles but also the impact of affect. My own feeling is that much of the emotional connection to a subject being studied has been excised, in favour of a more clinical or technical approach towards imparting knowledge. You might almost say that many lessons have become, or are in danger of becoming, dehumanized.

Thanks for this, Colin - most useful point about affect, and interesting to hear perspectives of how ideas are received in other parts of the world.

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