Steve Andreas responds to Shawn Carson’s post, “The Swish, States, and Neuroscience: Continuing the Dialogue with Steve Andreas

Steve’s responses are in italics.


This blog post (round 6) focuses on the question: “Does neuroscience actually help us know what to do with clients?” Shawn’s answer is “Yes”; my answer is “No.” Enjoy the dialogue! Summaries at the end.


Shawn wrote:

This post is in response to a continuing dialogue between Steve Andreas and myself, revolving around the swish (but occasionally veering off onto other topics). Steve and I hope this dialogue can act as an example of deep yet respectful debate of important areas of NLP.  Of course I am also deeply enjoying this dialogue and hope Steve and the rest of the NLP community who are reading this discussion are as well.

As usual, I’d like to take one aspect of Steve’s prior post and explore it a little more deeply. The aspect I have chosen is Steve’s wonderful line: “I have great respect for neuroscience, and also for nuclear physics. However, I don’t think either one has much to tell us (so far) about learning and change.”

That’s rather like saying I respect French cooking and nuclear physics, but neither one will help me entertain my friends from Paris!


Steve responds:

        This argument from analogy seems to be an attempt to show that my statement is not only wrong, but perhaps a bit ridiculous. However, Shawn doesn’t go on to show how this analogy establishes that, so for me it’s a non sequitur. An analogy can be useful if — and only if — the similarities are relevant, and if the analogy reveals a new understanding or prediction. How specifically is neuroscience like French cooking, how is entertaining friends from Paris like learning and change, and what can we learn from that analogy? I think it best to forego a confusing analogy, in favor of simply saying, “I disagree, and here are my reasons.” 

        I assume that the laws of nuclear physics underlie the practice of therapy, and I also assume that they underlie the process of kissing someone or making a soufflé. However, I have never seen any way in which physics can tell us how to do any of those things (or vice-versa)! They are simply different levels or realms of knowledge. When a carpenter cuts a board, she needs to know about the grain, and about splits or knots, but knowledge of the chemistry or physics of cellulose or lignin is of no use to her. Likewise, neuroscience is at a completely different level of understanding than therapy and change, so it doesn’t tell us anything about what to actually do with a client.


Shawn continues:

In this blog post I’ll focus on how neuroscience may indeed be able to assist with one of the key points of disagreement between Steve and myself: the difference between the ‘slingshot’ swish (aka Steve’s “butt joint”) and the ‘standard’ swish (aka Steve’s “lap joint”).


Steve responds:

         Though it’s a bit peripheral to this dialogue on the usefulness of neuroscience, perhaps a reminder might be useful. A slingshot swish is one in which the cue image rapidly recedes to a point on the horizon, and then returns as the desired self-image, which I likened to a butt joint, because the two images don’t overlap. In the swish as Bandler originally described it, the cue image rapidly becomes smaller and more distant at the same time as the desired self-image becomes larger and closer, which I likened to a lap joint, because the two images overlap at all points in the transition.

         More relevant, there is a key difference between the kind of evidence that Shawn and I are using for our differing views, Shawn is using theoretical understandings based on neuroscience. Even if they may be true, images of neurons firing don’t provide us with the kind of sensory-based experiences that are utilized in the swish. In contrast, everyone has had the experience of turning our head, and seeing one scene change quickly to another, connecting the two in a smooth transition. We have also had the experience of a door opening, and seeing the image of the door diminish in size, revealing an enlarging image of what is beyond the door. These provide concrete reference experiences of connection between images that are similar to those used in the swish.

         I have been searching for examples of experiences in real life that are similar to the slingshot swish, without success. In movies, a “jump cut” (butt joint) always indicates a discontinuity — a change in objective viewpoint, a shift from what one person sees to another person’s view, or a gap in time or space. All of these are disconnecting rather than connecting.

         Good change work accesses experiences that we have all had in the real world and applies them to problems in our inner world. For example, fairly often when people are making a difficult decision, they find that their images of different aspects of the decision don’t stay put in their visual field; they fall down, zoom in or out, or slide around, etc., causing confusion and overwhelm. If you suggest to them that they put Velcro on the back of each image, and hear the slight sound that Velcro makes when you press it down, suddenly all their images will stay put, and they are no longer confused.


Shawn continues:

Before we dive into the client’s brain and swish their neurons, I’ll preface by saying the principal use of neuroscience in change-work (IMO) is that it provides a complete and compelling set of metaphors to create change-potential in clients. That’s why I wrote a book on Neuroscience for coaches (‘Keeping the Brain in Mind’) with my co-author Melissa Tiers. Explaining how the processes you (as coach) will use with your clients actually rewire their brain, you set them up for success. For example I coach a number of hard-nosed New York business men and women on a long term basis. They may initially be reluctant to try any technique they consider “woo-woo”, but as soon as I explain how their ‘working memory’ operates, they are keen to get started as those “woo-woo” techniques have now become scientific. Science is the new religion.


Steve responds:

         When someone is reluctant to engage in change work, talking about neuroscience can indeed be used metaphorically to elicit cooperation. Depending on the client’s background and reasons for hesitating, other metaphors based on energy, digestion, computers, or religion might be much more effective. One fundamentalist client’s concerns about Satan were satisfied when he was told that the swish was a form of “visual prayer,” a way of communicating with the almighty.

        I usually use a simpler and more universally applicable approach, based on refocusing a client’s attention on his/her outcome. “OK, you’ve been (past tense) concerned that the methods I use might be “woo-woo,” so you think they won’t work. I don’t care whether you think they will work or not, because I know that they work. Your cell phone works whether or not you believe in the electronics and physics that make it work — all you need to know is which buttons to push. I don’t do faith healing; if you want faith healing, you’ll need to see someone else. Now here’s the really important question, ‘If my methods did work to get your outcome, would you have any objection to that?’ ”

         Some variation of that approach side-steps the whole belief issue, and refocuses attention on the client’s outcome. This elicits cooperation. My phobia client was totally disbelieving (6:25) until after I tested her response at the end, but she cooperated fully, which is all that was needed.

         While you can use neuroscience to motivate a client to do a processes, that is using an external authority, which won’t fit for someone who has a strong internal reference. I prefer the approach I outlined above, because it teaches clients to focus on their outcomes, and to try things out and notice their own experience, rather than believing in what a “neuroscience expert” says. Many clients already suffer from taking on limiting beliefs from others, and I don’t want to add to that. I want clients to learn from their own experience, and develop more of an internal reference. I often say to clients, “I’m the expert on what might work to get your outcome; you are the expert on what actually does work.”

         Since talking about neuroscience is an abstract, conscious-mind activity, it can be used to dissociate a client from their problem. As the client pictures neurons firing together, or “hijacking the amygdala,” it will be hard to attend to whatever internal images have been troubling them. However, there are hundreds of much simpler and more direct ways to interrupt the client’s problem state, such as commenting on their shoes, or a non-sequitur like, “Yes, except for the ladder.” Talking about “brain science” may delude both client and practitioner into thinking they are discussing something useful, when its only utility is as a break state.

         Finally, if science really were the new religion, then everyone would “believe” in evolution and climate change, but that is certainly not the case. Science explains nothing, but makes many testable predictions. Religion explains everything, and predicts nothing. Here is a mathematician’s poem that captures the essence of science:

Not truth, nor certainty. These I foreswore
In my novitiate, as young men called
To holy orders must abjure the world.
“If . . ., then . . .,” this only I assert;
And my successes are but pretty chains
Linking twin doubts, for it is vain to ask
If what I postulate be justified,
Or what I prove possess the stamp of fact.

Yet bridges stand, and men no longer crawl
In two dimensions. And such triumphs stem
In no small measure from the power this game,
Played with the thrice-attenuated shades
Of things, has over their originals.
How frail the wand, but how profound the spell! 

                                    –Clarence R. Wylie Jr.

From “The Imperfections of Science” by Warren Weaver. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 104, No. 5, October, 1960.


Shawn continues:

Hebb’s Law and Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity

OK, let’s dive into that brain. Inside your client’s brain (let’s say they came for smoking cessation), you see a tangle of long cells, with sparks of electricity moving between them.


Steve responds:

         It is simply not true that “sparks of electricity” move between neurons. A presynaptic neuron releases one or more neurotransmitter chemicals from a vesicle, the neurotransmitters diffuse rapidly across the synaptic cleft, and bind to receptor sites on the postsynaptic neuron, stimulating it to fire in response.

         However, more important is that neither Shawn’s nor my explanation is of any use whatsoever for someone who has an everyday problem of angry outbursts, thoughts of revenge, shame, or grief; it’s just irrelevant in helping them change.


Shawn continues:

These are your client’s neurons. When one neuron (the pre-synaptic neuron) fires, the neighboring neuron (the post-synaptic neuron) can either fire in response, or fail to fire in response. Whether the neighbor fires depends on a number of complex factors, one of which is how receptive the second neuron is to signal from the first neuron, i.e. whether or not the two neurons consider themselves to be ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’.

How do the neurons decide whether to be friends or enemies? Pretty much the same way you do! If one neuron fires, and its neighbor fires in response (“Hi neighbor, how are you today?”; “I’m just great, how are you?”) then they become friends; and the second neuron becomes more likely to fire when the first neuron fires.


Steve responds:

         Shawn’s anthropomorphic metaphor describing the relationship between neurons at a synapse is misleading in several ways. Neurons that fire sequentially don’t “talk to each other,” they aren’t “friends,” and most important, the postsynaptic neuron never “talks back” to the presynaptic neuron. They also don’t “decide” whether or not to fire; if the connections are numerous enough, and strong enough, they fire, and if they aren’t, they don’t.

         Again what’s really important is that neither Shawn’s nor my neuroscience explanation is of any use whatsoever in deciding what to do in order to help someone who has an everyday problematic response that they would like to change.

         Until someone can give me a specific example of how a piece of information from neuroscience can tell us something about what to do with a client that we don’t already know from NLP, I stand by my statement that “I have great respect for neuroscience, and also for nuclear physics. However, I don’t think either one has much to tell us (so far) about learning and change.”

         Shawn’s discussion of neuroscience below only provides a different explanation of what we already know. Since it offers no new predictions about how to respond to a client with a problem, it’s irrelevant to the swish, or any other method. Explanation without prediction is a useless self-deception. Nevertheless, I have made a few comments below where I thought it might be useful to clarify and respond to certain points.


Shawn continues:

But if the first neuron’s greeting is ignored by being met with a chilly ‘failure to fire’ response, then the neurons become ‘enemies’ and second neuron actually becomes less likely to fire when the first one fires.

This process is called ‘Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity’ (STDP). This is the basis of the famous Hebb’s Law which is somewhat inaccurately stated as, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. As we have seen, it would be more accurate, but less poetic, to say “neurons that fire sequentially, wire together”.

Self-Directed Neuro-Plasticity

Now let’s focus on two specific neurons, the pre-synaptic “smoking neuron”, and right next to it, the post-synaptic “ideal-future-self” neuron. I do realize these are not actually individual neurons, rather they would be neural networks, but let’s stick with the simple case first! What do you see when the “smoking” neuron fires a spark of electricity to its “ideal-future-self” neighbor across the synapse? How does the “ideal future-self” neuron respond? Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond at all, because you haven’t yet run the swish pattern with your client, and the neurons are currently enemies! After all, if these neurons were wired together, the client wouldn’t be a smoker because every time she saw a cigarette she would imagine how she wanted to be a non-smoker.

We want to wire these two neurons together so that whenever your client sees their cigarettes, they imagine their ideal-future-self. Hebb’s Law (or rather STDP) says we first get the smoking neuron to fire (by asking our client to imagine seeing her pack or cigarettes), then immediately afterward get the ideal-future-self neuron to fire (by swishing into the picture of their ideal-future-self). Repeat this a few times, and voila the neurons become friends, and the ideal-future-self neuron will fire each and every time the smoking neuron fires. As Steve rightly says we are linking the two pictures (or in this description, linking the two neurons) and this can be done very quickly. Indeed it must be done quickly if STDP is to work. This is why we speed the swish up until it is done very quickly. Incidentally, this is also why the cue image (say the pack of cigarettes) always precedes the outcome image, because we have to fire the pre-synaptic neuron first for STDP.

So the swish helps the client to literally rewire their own brain, what Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz calls self-directed neuro plasticity (see Dr. Schwartz’ book ‘The Mind and the Brain’).

Now Steve draws an erroneous conclusion. He says that because we are swapping images (which is fast), or wiring neurons (which is even faster),


Steve responds:

         I wrote about swapping images; Shawn is talking about wiring neurons. Swapping images is experiential, and you can give a client specific instructions how to do that. Wiring neurons is entirely theoretical, and you can’t tell a client how to do that.


Shawn continues:

therefore (and I quote) “a simultaneous transition will be much more dependable than the sequential slingshot swish”. Clearly the one statement doesn’t at all follow from the other, any more than saying “because the pre-synaptic neuron fires first and only afterward does the post-synaptic neuron fire, then the sequential transition is more dependable”. In NLP jargon this is a ‘cause-effect statement’ from the Milton Model, but it’s not good logic.


Steve responds:

When I wrote “simultaneous transition,” the word “transition” clearly indicates a sequence. My use of the word “simultaneous” described that the cue image decreases in intensity at the same time that the desired self-image increases in intensity. I have no idea how that relates to the sequential or simultaneous firing of neurons, and I don’t think Shawn does either. I am not aware of any neuroscience research on the swish pattern that would tell us what is going on in the brain when images are exchanged in the swish. Even if that kind of information were available, it would only be useful if it told us something we didn’t already know — for instance if it made some prediction about how a change in the swish process would make it more efficient or more lasting.


Shawn continues:

Sequential or Simultaneous, That Is the Question

So what’s an NLPer to do to decide between the two swishes? Fortunately we have a wealth of data on ‘sequential’ versus ‘simultaneous’ neural firing from the field of classical conditioning. Now the white-coated ‘behaviorists’ who get excited by ringing bells and salivating dogs, have their own jargon, which I will use here so readers can take a look at the underlying research if they wish. They call sequential firing “trace conditioning”, and call the type of ‘simultaneous’ firing Steve is referring to “delay conditioning”. To make this clearer, if Pavlov rang his bell and then fed his dog that would be trace conditioning, but if he rang the bell and then fed the dog while the bell was still ringing, it would be delay conditioning.

So what does the world of neuroscience have to say about trace versus delay conditioning? It turns out they say some pretty interesting things, and at least one VERY interesting thing.

So first and foremost, both trace and delay conditioning are effective.


Steve responds:

         I want to repeat that Shawn’s use of the word “simultaneous” to describe the “lap joint” swish is misleading. The lap joint is both simultaneous and sequential at the same time, so Shawn’s discussion above doesn’t apply.

I know very little about different kinds of conditioning, and even less about the extent to which they might be applicable to understanding the swish. However, in looking up trace conditioning and delay conditioning, I find that they are both versions of classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, in which a physiological response (salivation) is conditioned to a different stimulus, (such as a bell or a light) instead of the unconditioned stimulus (meat powder). In both versions of classical conditioning the unconditioned stimulus doesn’t decrease at the same time that the conditioned stimulus increases. And since the evolved self-image in the swish is not a physiological response like salivation, it is at least questionable whether the principles of classical conditioning have any application to the swish.

         Operant conditioning, in which a behavior (rather than a physiological response) is rewarded or punished, would seem to be somewhat more relevant to the swish, but my ignorance is abysmal, and I don’t know if that would apply either. The desired self-image is not a specific behavior to be reinforced, the fact that it is desired means that the source of reinforcement is internal (intrinsic) rather than external (extrinsic), and there are other differences that lead me to think that operant conditioning is also a poor fit for understanding the swish pattern.

         Again the bottom line is, “Does any neuroscience explanation offer any information about the swish that we don’t already know?” So far in this discussion, the answer is clearly “No.”


Shawn continues:

Outside of some specific contexts (that I will get to in a moment) they seem to be pretty equal. One context in which they are not equal, where delay conditioning (Steve’s lap joint) is better, is if there is a significant delay between the stimulus and response. For example if Pavlov rang the bell then waited for five minutes before feeding his dog, ‘delay conditioning’ would likely be more effective because the bell would still be ringing when the dog was fed. Obviously there is no significant delay between trigger picture and outcome picture in the swish, so this is not an issue (unless you are a fan of the slooowww-swiiisshh pattern).

Another context where ‘delay conditioning’ is also more effective is where there is significant damage to the subject’s pre-frontal cortex (PFC) or hippocampus. It appears that trace conditioning uses a different neural pathway, one that travels through the hippocampus and PFC, while delay conditioning requires only a cerebellum and brain stem. Therefore if you have a client who has had a full frontal lobotomy, or has serious brain damage to the PFC or hippocampus as a result of say a stroke, or if you’re a frog-whisperer and your client is an amphibian, you should definitely stick to the classical (lap joint) swish. Otherwise feel free to use either, confident that both are effective. Or use the one that butters your parsnips, or better yet the one that butters your client’s parsnips.


Steve responds:

         Again, these are all comments about classical conditioning, which could be relevant to a process involving straight anchoring of physiological responses, but they don’t appear to apply to the swish.


Shawn continues:

Actually this comes to an important principle of NLP, namely that, as NLPers, we do not use exclusive ‘or’s’. Meaning as the classical and slingshot swish actually use different neural pathways, you could try using both (either sequentially or simultaneously – just kidding!).

Neural Networks and Hebbian Engrams

Now let’s expand the discussion from individual neurons to the more accurate neural networks. Because neighboring neurons either become ‘friends’ (more-and-more likely to fire) or ‘enemies’ (less-and-less likely to fire), your brain becomes tribal, forming cliques of neurons that all tend to fire together and also stop other cliques from firing. This process is described by the famous psychologist Gordon Allport as follows:

“If the inputs to a system cause the same pattern of activity to occur repeatedly, the set of active elements constituting that pattern will become increasingly strongly inter-associated. That is, each element will tend to turn on every other element and (with negative weights) to turn off the elements that do not form part of the pattern. To put it another way, the pattern as a whole will become ‘auto-associated’. We may call a learned (auto-associated) pattern an engram.”


Steve responds:

         Since Allport died almost a half-century ago, I don’t think he is the best authority on current neuroscience. But even if his (somewhat vague) statement is correct, it doesn’t make any predictions about the swish, or tell us something we don’t already know about how to do it.


Shawn continues:

If that’s a bit of a mouth-full, think of the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story, you’re either a Jet, or you’re a Shark (but not both), and when the Jets visit Doc’s Drug Store, the Sharks generally stay away, and vice versa. Revisiting our client’s neurons, the smoking neuron (let’s call it Tony) has a whole gang of other neurons, let’s call them the Jets, associated with it. These Jets will include memories of smoking, contexts where the client smokes, beliefs about smoking, the feelings associated with smoking, and so on. And the ideal-future-self neuron (which we will call Chino) has its own gang (the Sharks) of neurons relating to how that ideal-future self will look, feel, behave (OK Steve no behaviors) and so on.

When we use the swish to wire Tony and Chino together, we end up wiring all the ideal-future-self resources onto all the smoking contexts and triggers – we may have to swish several contexts to fully generalize of course. At the end of the swish, the Jets and the Sharks become friends, reconciled through Smoking-Tony’s demise, and the Maria neuron sings “One Hand-One Heart” as the credits roll.


Steve replies:

         It’s a cute metaphor, but since it is based on classical conditioning, it doesn’t fit the structure of the swish, and makes no predictions, so it’s irrelevant, and doesn’t teach us anything.


Shawn continues:

Choosing the ‘Appropriate Resource’

I will comment briefly on Steve’s points about resource selection. I completely agree that the resource should be “appropriate” for the problem. However that doesn’t get us very far: what is appropriate and what is not? There is something in NLP called an ‘ecology check’, which seeks to ensure the change being made by the client will be ecological for all aspects of their life. For example if a client wants a high energy confidence state to do something silly, the coach has to deal with the lack of ecology as a first step.

In HNLP (Humanistic Neuro Linguistic Psychology) we say, “the conscious mind has no business choosing the resource-state”. This includes the hypnotist/coach’s conscious mind. HNLP presupposes it is up to the client’s unconscious to choose the best resource.


Steve responds:

         I agree that is a very useful principle, and that is why, in my original post “How to ruin the swish,” I stressed the importance of the desired self-image, which doesn’t include a specific behavior; that is left to the client’s unconscious mind. However in Shawn’s animated video, the narrator/therapist asks, “What if there were a way that every time you saw a donut . . . you felt motivated to work out?” “Working out” is a specific behavior chosen by the narrator/therapist’s conscious mind, not the client’s unconscious mind.

         Furthermore, as I pointed out in my original post, “feeling motivated to work out” is not ecological in at least three respects: 1. If it succeeds, the “every” means she has given up the choice to eat a donut now and then, 2. The contexts in which she sees a donut will seldom offer an opportunity to work out, so her motivation to work out will be frustrated, and 3. Sometimes she may think of eating a donut when she’s already worked out and be too tired to work out more.


Shawn continues:

This might be a high energy resource, or a lower energy ‘end-state’ type of resource. If a high energy resource state is chosen then would then tend to moderate into a lower energy end-state over time (as in the discussion of Bella – see previous post). The principal tool for achieving this is pacing and leading.

Steve seems to imply that high energy resource states are by their nature bad (“a thousand red flags flutter in my mind”).


Steve responds:

         Shawn has taken my quote out of context, and has substituted “high energy resource state” for “awesomely confident,” when those are not the same thing. What I actually wrote was, “Whenever someone wants to be “awesomely confident,” a thousand red flags flutter in my mind, as I wonder if they have the competence to go with it.” A high energy resource state may be appropriate for a particular task, such as Olympic performance where you need to mobilize every ounce of energy and concentration, but you also need to have specific skills (competence).

         However, “awesome confidence” is a contradiction. If you are “awesomely confident” about something, you don’t even notice it, because you so completely take it for granted. When Tony Robbins elicits a “high energy state” (using the same methods that evangelist preachers have been using for hundreds of years) it is always to “break through” fears or doubts — the opposite polarity that usually lurks beneath the desire for a state of “awesome confidence.” Disregarding the reasons for the fear or doubt is a violation of ecology that is likely to cause trouble. Integrating the polarity will be much more useful — and lasting.


Shawn continues:

High energy states can indeed be risky, that’s why we still use the Greek word hubris for those who tempt the gods. However, I would hazard to say that for every person who has made a bad decision due to over-confidence (the number of Las Vegas gamblers shows there are many), there is a person who has failed to take action toward their goals and dreams due to low energy lack of confidence. Some who only rarely access high energy states often “live lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with their song still in them”. It cuts both ways, and many people admire James Dean over the man who retires from his desk job and spends the rest of his days playing bingo until expiring unremarked at the age of 90.


Steve responds:

         The foregoing poses a false either/or dilemma, in contrast to what Shawn wrote earlier, “Actually this comes to an important principle of NLP, namely that, as NLPers, we do not use exclusive ‘or’s’.” There is an infinite range of possibilities between James Dean and a geezer playing bingo.

         When someone suffers from uncertainty, and wants more confidence, both sides of the polarity need to be recognized and honored, and they need to be integrated if change is to be lasting and ecological. If James Dean had only raced his Porsche on the race track in sanctioned races, instead of on a public highway, he might still be enjoying life today.


Shawn continues:

A great example of a higher energy state is Dr. Richard Bandler’s client session called ‘Shyness’. Dr. Bandler does a classical new strategy installation. If you have seen the video of the session, you will recall Dr. Bandler installs an initial step in the strategy where he asks the client to make a sort of primal yell. BTW this takes place inside the client’s head, not out-loud when introducing himself to a young lady! This could be interpreted as a high energy sense of confidence (and why not). There is a similar step Tony Robbins uses in his ‘stuttering’ demonstration (that Steve refers to in an earlier post), where Robbins leads the client to make a ‘warrior’ yell; again this generates a high-energy state in the client. What you may not realize when seeing these is that this high energy yell also takes back control of the voice from the word and language based left-brain, to the more emotional right brain (there’s always more going on!). In any case, Bandler does a follow up with his shyness client, who sits back in his chair relaxed (wearing badly fitting shorts if memory serves), talking as if meeting girls was never a problem for him. The high energy state transforms into an end state.

Amygdala Hijack

Finally, another piece of neuroscience. When talking of phobias, anger, fear and embarrassment, and similar states, these are moderated  by the so-called ‘amygdala hijack’. The optic nerve runs from the eyes to the visual cortex at the back of the brain, where it’s processed into a meaningful representation of the world, which is transmitted forward to the PFC at the front of the brain for rationale decision making. This route is too slow to prevent me from being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger (“Oh is that a saber tooth tiger over there? Hmm that’s interesting, perhaps I should run…”; CHOMP!!!). Therefore, to save me from danger  my brain takes a feed from the optic nerve and runs it straight into the amygdala, before the information even reaches the visual cortex. The amygdala is responsible for fight-or-flight responses, and if my amygdala has any doubt about what it’s seeing, it sends a jolt of adrenaline into my body that I feel as a phobic response, or physical fear, or embarrassment (social fear), or anger. This is known as the amygdala hijack because it hijacks the rational mind, and is why I can feel afraid when I see a snake-like twig on the ground at night, and why these emotions can instantaneously interrupt everyday emotions.

The phobia cure, and similar techniques, target ‘amygdala hijack’. We calm the amygdala (“imagine you’re sitting in a comfortable theater, about to watch an old grainy black and white movie”), while gradually introducing the stimulus. This ultimately results in a rational ‘so what’ response, as the information follows the longer pathway through the visual cortex and PFC (for a visual phobia).   Notice that this depotentiation of the amygdala hijack follows the meta pattern: there is the phobic response; gradual exposure to the trigger in a dissociated manner; a calm response (the resource); and finally the ability to associate into the context (have the bee land on you) and retain the resource-calmness, i.e. the ‘collapse’.


Steve responds:

         Even assuming that all the above is true, it doesn’t tell us anything new about what to do with a client with a phobia. People have realized for hundreds of years that extreme feelings of fear “hijack” thinking. Does it really matter whether this occurs in the amygdala, rather than the liver, the left elbow or the (raised) middle finger of your dominant hand?


Shawn continues:

I totally agree with Steve that client’s don’t generally go from a phobic response to ‘confidence’, but again this doesn’t mean high energy confidence is never appropriate.


Steve responds:

         As I explained above, high energy confidence is a contradiction indicating an inner polarity between confidence and doubt. If you elicit either side of the polarity, that ignores the other, and that is not ecological. “High energy confidence” is a castle built on quicksand.


Shawn continues:


I am greatly enjoying this ongoing discussion with Steve, and I hope it provides some interesting jumping off points for readers own thoughts, discussions and experiments. Due to modern imaging techniques such as fMRI, neuroscience is making leaps and bounds in our understanding of how the brain works. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in NLP, how the brain and mind work, or the human condition in general to become familiar with the principles of neuroscience. These will aid you in choosing a solid direction for your own experimentation with clients.


Steve responds:

         Please provide a specific example of how a specific “principle of neuroscience” can be used to choose a direction for “experimentation with clients” in a way that goes beyond what we already know and can predict from NLP principles or practice.


Shawn continues:

The tai chi master was delighted after three years of training that his student was able to replicate the tai chi  forms he had been taught. He told the student to go away and practice by himself for a further three years and then return. After three years the student returned, crestfallen and confessed that even while practicing diligently, he had lost 30% of what his teacher had taught. The teacher was disappointed and sent the student away to practice for another three years. Three years later the student returned and said he had lost 60% of his learnings. Once more the teacher sent him away to practice for three more years. On his return the student told the teacher he had now lost 100% of his learnings, at which point the teacher congratulated him as he had made the art his own.

  • – Ancient Chinese story


Steve responds:

         That is a nice story about the difference between conscious explicit memory, and unconscious implicit memory. That is an important distinction that is often useful in deciding how to intervene with a client, but it is irrelevant to our exchange, which is an discussion of whether neuroscience can tell us anything we don’t already know about how to do the swish pattern or any other NLP process.



         I’m going to repeat a paragraph from the beginning of my response that summarizes my argument that neuroscience is irrelevant to doing therapy or change work:

         I assume that the laws of nuclear physics underlie the practice of therapy, and I also assume that they underlie the process of kissing someone or making a soufflé. However, I have never seen any way in which physics can tell us how to do any of those things (or vice-versa)! They are simply different levels or realms of knowledge. When a carpenter cuts a board, she needs to know about the grain, and about splits or knots, but knowledge of the chemistry or physics of cellulose or lignin is of no use to her. Likewise, neuroscience is at a different level than therapy and change, so it doesn’t tell us anything about what to actually do with a client.