The human brain is an incredibly complex organ. It governs every single thought, action, feeling, memory, and experience of the world that we have. And yet, despite centuries of research, the brain continues to baffle scientists, who remain unable to unlock all of its mysteries. How are memories formed and stored? How are emotions generated? What about consciousness? And, most importantly, what if something goes wrong within the brain? What if its inner ‘programming’ becomes faulty or corrupted and it starts to make wrong connections? Is there a way to fix it or restore it back to its factory settings, in a manner of speaking? Some people seem to think so.
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) can be defined as “a psychological approach that involves analysing strategies used by successful individuals and applying them to reach a personal goal.” Advocates of this method believe that specific outcomes can be linked with the thoughts, language, and patterns of behavior that preceded them.
In other words, they believe that it’s possible to ensure success in a particular task by analysing what other individuals did to solve a similar problem and copying their actions. NLP advocates further propose that the experience arising from a particular action should not be viewed as either good or bad and that every human action should be considered positive, regardless of its outcome, because it offers us valuable information which we may not have been privy to otherwise.
NLP was originally conceived in the 1970s at the University of California, Santa Cruz by linguist John Grinder and information scientist and mathematician Richard Bandler, who released the first book on NLP, Structure of Magic: A Book about Language of Therapy, in 1975. Other notable individuals who have made significant contributions to the field include Judith DeLozier, Leslie Cameron-Bandler, David Gordon, and Robert Dilts. Over the years, NLP has found applications in many different fields, such as counseling, business, medicine, sports, the military, the performing arts, and education.
However, it’s important not to confuse neuro-linguistic programming with natural language processing, which is a pretty common mistake as the two fields share not just the acronym NLP, but also the utilisation of language processing. It’s also often likened to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), although the proponents of NLP claim that their approach requires less time to produce positive change.
The intricate connection between the human mind and the external world
The three main elements of NLP are modeling, action, and effective communication. NLP aims to help people change their thoughts and actions through a combination of perceptual, behavioral, and communication techniques. “The human mind and the external world are intricately connected. In other words, NLP subscribes to the age-old principle that we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. Therefore, understanding your own subjective experience gives significant advantages in understanding the world,” explains Mike Bundrant, the founder of iNLP Center. The central idea behind this approach is that each person has their own internal ‘map’ of the world, which they form through sensory experiences and which guides their actions.
However, this map always contains some unconscious biases or limitations, which NLP aims to identify and resolve. For instance, proponents of NLP believe that each person is biased towards one sensory system – whether it’s visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, or gustatory – which they call the preferred representational system or PRS. Once they identify a person’s PRS through language, an NLP practitioner can use it to create an effective therapeutic framework that will help them strengthen the skills that they already possess and develop new ones that will enable them to increase their productivity. NLP has also been used to treat a wide range of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, phobias, obsessions and compulsions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
NLP practitioners employ a number of different techniques to achieve their goals, such as anchoring, in which sensory experiences are turned into triggers for certain emotional states, or rapport building, in which the practitioner tries to improve communication and response through empathy by mirroring the person’s physical behaviours. Another popular technique is swish pattern, which aims to change the person’s patterns of behavior or thought so that they lead to a desired outcome, rather than an undesired one.
Last but not least, visual/kinesthetic dissociation (VKD) attempts to remove negative thoughts and feelings the person has come to associate with a past event. A person with NLP training can easily gain access to the inner workings of another person’s mind and adjust the programming that guides their communication and behaviour using nothing more than simple conversation.
A person’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions can have a profound effect on the way they live their lives and that effect is not always positive. For instance, if a person believes that they can do something, they most likely can. If they don’t, on the other hand, they will fail more often than not. The placebo effect, which is the term that describes a phenomenon in which a person responds positively to a treatment they are given even though it has no actual physical effect, is yet another widely observed example of the power of the mind.
However, most people have very little control over what goes on in their heads. And that’s precisely where neuro-linguistic programming comes in. NLP allows people to take control of their minds and change the way they think and feel about past events, and how they respond to the world around them.
The benefits of NLP
Some earlier clinical studies claim to have found evidence that neuro-linguistic programming can have a positive effect on weight loss, reduce anxiety, and improve overall mood. NLP has also been shown to help dislexic children improve their learning capabilities by reducing their anxiety levels and increasing their self-esteem. NLP allows educators to better understand what motivates students and adapt their teaching style accordingly. It also provides them with useful tools that will help them deal with challenging behaviours more effectively, while at the same time providing students with learning strategies that will help them develop the skills they need to optimise their learning paths. Perceptual positioning and presupposition are two of the neuro-linguistic programming techniques that have proven particularly effective in addressing various educational challenges.
The former involves having students view things from another person’s point of view. However, rather than just asking them to assume the other person’s perspective, the teacher instructs students to switch seats with them as well to trigger a more intense change of thought. The latter, on the other hand, refers to “unspoken meanings in conversation,” such as a teacher asking students whether they want to focus on completing their current assignment or do something else first. Although the teacher never explicitly says so, students understand that they have to complete both assignments, but having the ability to choose makes them more likely to follow instructions and raises their concentration levels.
NLP brings numerous other benefits to both academic and professional life. It allows a person to increase their self-awareness by encouraging them to explore different ways to achieve their goals. It also improves brain plasticity by encouraging individuals to apply new strategies when faced with a new situation. This behavioural flexibility, which is one of the key aspects of NLP, can prove to be rather handy when a tried-and-true method that a person has come to rely on fails. Furthermore, by helping a person enhance their knowledge and skills, NLP offers greater motivation to continue with their education or professional development. It helps people become more aware of the sounds, smells, and colours that are surrounding them and allows them to develop better communication and empathy skills, improving their social intelligence and allowing them to make their own relationships more balanced and healthier.
For young people who may have doubts about their future careers, NLP can offer vocational guidance by helping them better evaluate their options and make the right choices. By teaching them to focus on the desired outcome, rather than thinking about everything that could go wrong, NLP can help people improve their thought process and make better decisions.
When it comes to teachers, NLP helps them understand that every student is unique and that they all have their own individual needs and learning styles. By taking these things into account, teachers can help their students process the learning content more effectively and improve their knowledge retention. Visual learners, for instance, learn better when the learning content is presented in the form of books, posters, slides, or examples written on the blackboard, rather than orally. On the other hand, auditory learners prefer their learning content to be delivered orally by a teacher or through an audio recording. By recognising their individual needs and adapting their style of teaching accordingly, teachers will be able to better motivate their students and help them achieve better learning outcomes.
As outlined above, neuro-linguistic programming has been used for a wide variety of purposes, from improving productivity in the workplace to treating psychological disorders. In recent years, it has also been increasingly employed in educational settings, where it’s believed to provide numerous benefits.
Astley Community High School, a coeducational school for students aged 13-18, located in a semi-rural area of Northumberland, has been experimenting with NLP techniques like anchoring and non-verbal communication as a way to influence student behaviour in class. “My focus was to use neuro-linguistic programming techniques with an aim to improve pupils’ learning experiences and their engagement within lessons,” explains Michell Whall, a teacher at Astley Community High School. “The expectation was that application of particular NLP techniques would result in improved pupil behaviour in class leading to increased engagement within lessons.”
The results were quite promising, with teachers observing increased engagement with the class, a more attentive class with less frequent unwanted behaviours, better progression through the learning content, and an improved teacher-pupil relationship. “My classroom practice has changed considerably since the NLP techniques are easily applied and become natural behaviour very quickly. The impacts were quick, and plain to see,” adds Whall.
Similarly, teachers at St Benet Biscop High School in Bedlington have been using specific NLP language and communication strategies, including anchoring, rapport, and visualisations, in an attempt to improve pupil behaviour and achievement. And just like their colleagues from the example above, they were rather successful in this endeavour. “Through our discussions we have observed that NLP enables students to engage and contribute usefully to lessons.
Students have been able to explain themselves more clearly and are able to problem solve and bring themselves to suitable and workable solutions through guidance and communication with the teacher,” explain Joanna Dobson and Helen Fuhr, teachers at St Benet Biscop High School. “There has been a significant improvement in the levels of confidence shown by pupils in the classroom and this has led to increased motivation which has manifested itself both in improved contribution and work rate in class and improved quality of homework.”
While there are those who proclaim its effectiveness, it’s worth pointing out at this point that neuro-linguistic programming has its fair share of detractors as well. Some critics have gone so far as to call NLP a pseudoscience and assign it a ‘quack factor’ due to its purported links to hypnosis. They also criticised NLP’s lack of a credible theoretical basis, questioning its claims about thinking, perception, the subconscious, and the unconscious mind. The criticism also extends to one of the method’s founders, Richard Bandler, who has been labeled a hermit scientist and accused of making up his own terms and ideas that have no basis in science.
The lack of empirical evidence
Indeed, the biggest issue with NLP right now is that there is very little empirical evidence to support the lofty claims made by its advocates. Any ‘evidence’ we do have is purely anecdotal, supplied either through testimonials of those who have experienced it or by an NLP provider, which can hardly be considered conclusive, unbiased proof; in part due to their vested interest in the method’s success. While critics don’t deny that some people may be able to derive benefits from the use of NLP techniques, they believe that those can be attributed to their own will and experience of the subject, rather than any specific language they may have used. In fact, one of the biggest problems of NLP is that there is no accepted scientific method that can be used to measure its efficacy except to believe in testimonials.
There have been several scientific studies into the effectiveness of neuro-linguistic programming over the years, most of which found little or no evidence that it actually works. One study that was in favour of the method was published in the Counselling and Psychotherapy Research journal and it suggested that NLP can indeed help improve psychological symptoms and life quality of psychotherapy patients.
On the other hand, a review of 10 available studies on NLP published in The British Journal of General Practice found little evidence that NLP can be an effective treatment for health-related conditions, such as anxiety disorders, weight management, or substance abuse. Similarly, a 2014 report published by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technology in Health found no clinical evidence that NLP could be helpful in treating PTSD, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), or depression. These findings were later updated with a further research review published in 2015, whose authors suggest that NLP may have a positive impact on people afflicted with social or psychological problems, but called for additional research to produce more substantial evidence.
Mental health professionals themselves are not particularly keen on the whole concept, ranking it below acupuncture in terms of credibility. When it comes to the use of NLP in educational settings, a 2013 study found that NLP techniques helped children with special education needs “develop a positive state of mind conducive to learning.” However, a small sample size (just seven children) and “brief, tentative conclusions” were cited as limiting factors that bring the study into question.
Questionable theoretical basis
It’s not just the effectiveness of NLP that has been questioned, but also its theoretical basis. According to a paper published in 2009, the theories behind NLP were still not credible even several decades after it was first conceived. Furthermore, a 2010 review paper of 33 studies relating to NLP theories found that only 18 per cent supported said theories.
For instance, a 2012 study found no evidence for the claim that eye movement can be used to determine whether a person is lying or telling the truth, with eye movements of participants not matching the patterns outlined by NLP practitioners. However, it’s worth pointing out that most of the studies mentioned here were conducted in therapeutic settings, rather than commercial or educational environments. The lack of clarity surrounding the subject is complicating the matter even further, as well as the sheer variety of different methods and techniques used to evaluate the effectiveness of NLP, which makes it difficult to compare the results between studies.
Neuro-linguistic programming is a highly controversial topic that has generated much discussion in recent years. Its proponents claim that it can help treat various psychological disorders and increase productivity in the workplace or in the classroom. However, as of now, there is very little evidence to support any of those claims, with numerous critics dismissing NLP as nothing more than quackery and pseudoscience. As NLP becomes more prevalent in schools around the world, now might be a good time to get some definitive answers to the question of whether it actually works or not. But, until that happens, whether you believe in it or not is entirely up to you.